Digital health developments in diabetes

The Sidebar examines how evolving digital health technology is becoming an essential component of high-quality diabetes care.

The digital health space in diabetes is rapidly expanding as companies evaluate how new technologies can help tackle and manage the chronic disease. Diabetes management is already the most developed part of the digital health sector and, as services expand to tackle diabetes’ comorbidities, is forecast to be worth €1.3 billion by 2024.

Underpinning such market predictions is a rapidly increasing health burden. An estimated one million deaths are attributed to diabetes each year, with healthcare costs around the world rising. Costs attributed to the condition are expected to double to $2.5 trillion by 2030. As a consequence, digital health technologies — whether it be AI or advanced reporting analytics — are not only needed, but could be the key driver for transformational impact on diabetes care.

Smartphone-based digital health technologies are among those that are stepping up to the challenge. The development of artificial intelligence (AI)-based software and mobile apps is enabling patients to better manage their diabetes. The integration of these technologies with standard blood glucose meters (BGMs) or new wearable continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) sensor-based systems is proving to be particularly powerful.

Investment is on the rise

As the demand for digital-health services rises, so too does the capital being raised in the diabetes space, which has been hitting record amounts that put startups in the therapy area at a similar level to those in cardiovascular disease and mental health. 

Interest in Sidekick Health’s digital therapeutic solutions and programs for managing chronic diseases saw the company raise $20m last year to fund further development of its product offering. That effort was supported by Europe’s largest innovation agency, the EIT Digital Accelerator, which also selected Sidekick as one of Europe’s ten best deep technology scale-ups. 

The investment trend shows no signs of slowing, with a report by venture fund Rock Health finding that digital health start-ups in the diabetes space banked $957 million from investors in the first half of 2021.

Prior to that, there had already been significant activity across the pharma sector, with the likes of Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, Roche, and Sanofi investing in CGM systems, behavioral change programs, and patient care and management digital tools.

AI and machine learning is key in diabetes management

The integration of AI and machine learning applications in diabetes care has had a significant impact. Continuous glucose monitors used by patients with diabetes collect a huge amount of data that has previously not been used efficiently.

Data analysis can build models that better predict the impact of meals and insulin on glucose levels, leading to better control of blood sugar levels. Excitingly, AI software can also be used to check for the early detection of diabetes-related conditions such as diabetic retinopathy which leads to a loss of vision. 

Although the technology is in the early stages, AI is set to cause a paradigm shift in diabetes management through data-driven, personalized precision care.

Reducing healthcare spend

Digitizing components of diabetes care also promises major cost savings for healthcare providers. As patients are empowered to manage their condition, the burden of clinic-based care is removed, and doctors can track their patients’ health remotely. Data from the devices can be uploaded into electronic health records and consequently alert doctors to a problem that requires immediate attention. 

According to a study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, people living with diabetes who use a digital platform for care management save roughly $88 a month in medical costs during their first year of using the technology.

However, as the digital diabetes space evolves, regulations and guidelines are needed to standardize how mobile apps are reviewed and monitored for patient safety and clinical validity. While the European authorities and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share the same broad principles of regulating both traditional health products and software, there are still substantial differences in their organizational structures for medical product and software registration.

Germany as an example

Developments in one European country, however, could point the way for the future. Germany’s new digital health act opened up a structured path to have digital health applications reimbursed by statutory health insurance funds, making them accessible to patients on a broad basis. This legislation is particularly encouraging for diabetes patients, as it paves the way for access to personalized, AI-driven action plans.

Overall, there is a fundamental shift occurring in healthcare with digital health solutions quickly becoming an essential component of high-quality diabetes care, complementing those essential services that still need clinician interaction. 

As healthcare’s digital transformation continues, technological tools can provide new ways of tackling diabetes and boost the effectiveness of traditional approaches to the chronic illness.

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