Jeff Dachis was already a successful digital entrepreneur when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 47 years old. He immediately knew that technology would be a key factor in staying healthy. “This is an entirely data-driven disease,” he says, referring to the need to track glucose levels, insulin doses, food and activity. “I’ll make better choices if I have the information I need.” After researching the available apps and devices, he founded OneDrop, a subscription-based service for diabetes management that analyzes health data and provides live coaching.
You don’t have to be a tech expert to take advantage of the latest innovations: The new tools are designed to be more automated and intuitive than ever. Read on to find out how technology can make living with diabetes easier, and improve your chances of living a long and healthy life.
Drawing blood up to 10 times a day is a fact of life for many people with diabetes. A tiny amount of blood is placed at the end of a plastic strip, which draws in the blood. A device called a glucose meter displays the blood-sugar level within seconds.
It’s hard to believe that home glucose meters became available only in the 1980s. "I would go to a lab twice a year to find out what my blood sugar was," recalls Riva Greenberg, 64, of life before home monitors. Riva, who has written three books on diabetes, says she's "more than grateful" for self-monitoring, however trying it can be. (See Glucose meters: Revolutionizing diabetes management below.)
But early devices were bulky and barely portable. "I had this huge briefcase Glucometer," says Jessica Keenan, 44, who toted hers around as a teenager. "It was embarrassing! I was so self-conscious about carrying it with me. Plus, my fingers were always sore because you needed a decent amount of blood.” In addition to shrinking down to pocket-size, modern glucose meters require less blood.
Another pet peeve of condition management: manually logging health data in first-generation apps. Smart glucose meters like the BeatO (for Android) and the Dario plug into your phone and automatically save your data. OneDrop meters sync wirelessly with your phone or smartwatch.
The OneDrop system is part of a research study, led by Innovation Health (an Aetna partner), investigating how new technologies can make an impact on public health. The results will inform future clinical approaches to diabetes and other chronic conditions, like asthma and cardiopulmonary disease.
For people who must monitor their blood sugar more frequently, the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is an important development. First available in 1999, the sensor is worn 24/7 and notifies the user when their blood-sugar level is out of healthy range. In 2017, the FDA approved the first flash glucose monitor. It measures blood glucose in a similar way to a continuous glucose monitor but is less invasive and doesn’t require calibration with blood drops.
Health insurance companies typically cover continuous glucose monitoring for people with Type 1 but not Type 2 diabetes. Coverage of flash glucose monitors will be announced once the device is available in the United States. Check with your insurance company to find out which diabetes management devices are covered by your plan.
When Riva was diagnosed in 1972, at age 18, the latest gadget was the plastic syringe. “The generation before me had to boil glass syringes, and they had to sharpen the needles," she says. "Those were really the dark ages."
A lot has changed since then. Insulin pens — portable injectors that first appeared in the 1980s — have evolved much like glucose meters. Users can insert their pen into a device like the GoCap, which logs data and automatically sends it to the doctor. The InPen helps calculate your dose, then transmits your insulin record directly to your phone via Bluetooth.
For round-the-clock medication delivery, insulin pumps are an alternative to syringes and pens. Developed in the 1970s, today's pumps are wearable and programmable. Jessica has been using an insulin pump since 2002. "It's an easier way of delivery," she says. "I had three healthy pregnancies. I could not have done that without using an insulin pump." The T:Slim pump, which claims to be the smallest on the market, can also sync with continuous glucose monitors and with smartphones for easier record-keeping.
For people with Type 2 diabetes, food and activity tracking is essential for weight loss and increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Tracking is also important for people with Type 1, for a different reason: Recent meals and exercise affect their short-term insulin needs. For both groups, constant self-monitoring is a challenge. "I'm a terribly forgetful person," admits Lizmari Collazo, 40, who has Type 2. "And I don't like micromanaging my calories." Fortunately, several apps make it easier.
One of the most popular diabetes apps, MySugr syncs user data across devices ― from glucose meters to smartphones ― then offers personalized challenges and encouragement to help you reach health goals. Noom Coach is a general health app that also features diet and exercise recommendations specific to diabetes. You can find other helpful tools in the Aetna app room on iTunes.
OneDrop allows users to look up the nutritional content of packaged foods by scanning the barcode. Lizmari is a big fan of OneDrop's scanner feature, as well as the app's calorie and carb-counting functions. "When it gets toward the end of the day, and I'm about to make dinner, I can look at that tally and say, 'Maybe I should have something lighter than that heavy thing I was thinking about,'" she says. "It helps me make better choices."
Gamification functions can be especially helpful for children with diabetes. MySugr features a game component in which users tame an animated diabetes monster by eating healthy. Carb Counting with Lenny offers a suite of diabetes education games, as well as a nutrition guide tailored to picky eaters.
Modern diabetes tools are light years better than they were even 20 years ago. “People should know there’s a ton of technology out there to help them," Riva says. "We now live with devices that make management more convenient and life a little bit easier. While I’d love a cure like everyone else, that’s worth gold.” If you’re having trouble managing your diabetes, ask your doctor whether it’s time for an upgrade.
See how Aetna’s care management program leads to better health outcomes for people with Type 2 diabetes. Not only will you feel better, you’ll save money, too.
Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!
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