I just came back from my first American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions event, held June 9-13 in San Diego, and there were a number of surprising revelations about the medical device industry’s role in diabetes treatment.
Session after session and booth after booth discussed how continuous glucose monitoring devices, closed-loop artificial pancreas device systems, and data and analytics will lead to better patient outcomes. For example, I learned that initial tests completed with closed-loop artificial pancreas device systems are proving the effectiveness of these devices in improving health outcomes and keeping patients in the right blood glucose range by partially automating the use of insulin or glucagon. Continuous glucose monitoring, which regularly monitors and measures the health of patients with diabetes, helps create positive results and provides invaluable data that can be used to monitor the disease and adjust treatment.
On the data front, device data is being aggregated by diabetes companies partnering with IBM’s Watson and other artificial intelligence and machine-learning systems to drive treatment decisions. The advanced data concepts were cool—albeit confusing for a lowly business major—because some medical device organizations have partnered with traditional analytics organizations to go beyond basic algorithms and help with disease management through machine learning. Specifically, machine learning will analyze data based on parameters fed in for a specific problem, understand the basics of the issue and add more data over time to refine the results. For example, one company is using such algorithms to provide individual patient suggestions for managing their lifestyle. While the algorithm can’t legally give medical advice, it looks across thousands of patients to find patterns of when patients have glucose-level challenges (at night, for example) and shows the patients what’s happening. Patients can then discuss the challenges with their doctor and adjust their treatment regimen. With the amount of data that we have and will have in the future, machine-learning capabilities should have a huge impact on disease management (but that’s for another blog post on another day).
In listening to the medical device executives, clinicians and scientists speak at the event, I realized that many of the new and innovative devices are well positioned to achieve two things that will help patients with diabetes:
- Health: How do patients best manage their health to reduce the negative impact of the disease? The good news is that we’ve seen historical successes. Over the years, HbA1c numbers—used to measure blood sugar levels—have become a major part of the vernacular for patients and doctors alike, driving many patients to achieve the right numbers to manage their health. Similarly, new technologies are enabling patients’ goals of staying within safe blood glucose ranges as much as possible. Device companies have an opportunity to leverage these concepts to engage patients in disease management as they continue to innovate and make that management easier. Health discussions dominated the conference in every way.
- Happiness: How do patients manage life with a disease that has no cure? What surprised me most at the event was the medical device organizations’ lack of emphasis on happiness. To me, it appears that not enough companies are thinking about the happiness aspect. Most companies concentrate on improving health through tools, data and automation, but not on how to get patients to use the tools to better enjoy their lives while managing a challenging disease. Many medical device companies function like scientific organizations that are creating widgets to solve a problem. That isn’t to say that approach isn’t important, but the patient aspect seems to be missing. How do they live their lives with machines attached to them that beep all of the time? How can device manufacturers ensure that these life-saving technologies fit into the average person’s daily life? How do we further engage the patients with these great new innovations?
We’re starting to see some signs that we’re pointing in the right direction. I spoke with a few medical device vendors at the event who are thinking about how the industry can make diabetes management products smaller and less obtrusive, revamp insulin management to be less obvious on a patient’s body, and find ways for patients to exercise and eat without having to stop and spend 15 minutes preparing (measuring their blood sugar level, counting carbs, taking insulin, cataloging the level and dose, etc.). Many others are working on ways to integrate their devices with smartphones, which is a great first step.
To secure a solid footing in the future, the medical device industry has to find a balance between health and happiness in diabetes management. Living with a chronic disease is stressful and is a full-time job for many patients. It’s the medtech industry’s job to help solve disease management problems and ease the burden on patients, allowing them to live better and longer lives.
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