Mobile app to manage diabetes and athletic performance
- 11 September 2013
- From the section Science & Environment
A new personal health monitoring system promises improved management of diabetes, a condition affecting 1 in 10 adults in the UK.
Real-time blood sugar measurements are recorded via a sensor and mobile phone app using "cloud" internet technology.
The system is being trialled by diabetic athletes, cycling 2100 km over a fortnight across Europe.
Instant blood sugar monitoring could also stop marathon runners and long-distance cyclists "hitting the wall".
Diabetes is on the rise in the UK. One in 10 people in hospital have diabetes, with a similar proportion of deaths attributable to the disease. It is a chronic disease with no cure, but it can be managed.
Currently about 10% of the NHS budget is spent on direct treatment of diabetes, with a further large chunk taken up tackling serious complications that may include kidney failure, nerve damage, blindness and amputations.
Diabetes control typically exploits post-hoc data. Patients might get their blood sugar levels assessed every six-months, for example, with reports on how well they have been controlled in the previous months.
Researchers from the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria have announced a new approach to diabetes management, based around a state of the art personal health monitoring system that uses medical sensors, mobile phones, and cloud computing.
The technology is being trialled in a sporting event across Europe this week. A small discrete personal blood sugar sensor is worn by each participant, linked wirelessly to the wearer's mobile phone.
Around a hundred cyclists trialling the technology are currently taking part in a stage race from Brussels to Barcelona, cross the Alps and Pyrenees on the way, and will complete a 2,100 km course with a cumulative climb of 22,000m.
All the cyclists are wearing a blood sugar monitor that works as a small wire, picking up chemical changes to record glucose in the body fluid when stuck just under the wearer's skin. It costs around £40 and can be worn for up to ten days, sending data wirelessly to their mobile phone.
Most of the cyclists taking part have diabetes. Over the 13 days of the event they will wear continuous glucose monitors. The data collected via their mobile phones is being downloaded to a "cloud" data repository and can be analysed in real time by the scientific team back at Newcastle and Northumbria universities.
People with Type 1 diabetes often avoid strenuous exercise for fear of experiencing very low blood sugar and black outs. The technology described offers a route to avoiding such hypoglycemic episodes with real-time warnings.
Professor Mike Trenell at Newcastle University, who is leading the trial, said: "It is really about demonstrating how much things most of us carry in our everyday lives, mobile phones, hold the potential to help living with diabetes.
"We can enable patients to make real-time context-based decisions to improve their diabetes control. If we can get people to walk 45 minutes extra every day we get an equivalent cost saving of £800 per year." When multiplied by the huge number of patients currently on diabetes-related medication this amounts to massive saving for the NHS.
For more typical patients, it is anticipated that this type of continuous real-time monitoring could, in future, provide relatively cheap route for diabetes patients to monitor their blood sugar levels and manage their health.
Used by members of the general population, or those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the monitoring system could offer an early warning health check, and might be used to help demonstrate the health benefits of modifying life style, providing instant positive feedback.
For the road-cycling athletes the data are being combined with heart rates, cycling cadence, speed and climb rates in a linked dataset. During the current cycling event, participants' data can even be accessed via the web.
These sorts of personal performance datasets are becoming increasingly popular among cyclists, runners and other recreational athletes, with a wide range of web-based applications available for recording one's achievements (or otherwise).
For more serious professional endurance athletes it is easy to see how monitoring blood sugar levels during activities such as marathons or events such as the Tour de France could be useful.
"Hitting the wall" in running, or the equivalent "bonking" in cycling occurs when sugar reserves are depleted and blood sugar drops. By personal monitoring, participants would be able to maximise their performance by avoiding such sugar catastrophes.