AT long last, technology is coming to the rescue of diabetics, trying to make diabetes management easier. In fact, just in the past few years, there finally has been marvelous progress in diabetes care. This isn’t just with insulin pumps and home blood glucose monitoring systems. The technologies available now and those at the cusp of development are really encouraging and exciting.
It is heartening to see the advantages of the wireless world finally being brought to use beyond socializing. For diabetics, they’re being used as a means of communicating critical information about our health and the status of the conditions that can be mortally devastating and an expensive burden.
For example, after a year-long study researchers have demonstrated how a mHealth (mobile-phone-based remote patient monitoring) system helped patients in Canada with type 2 diabetes and uncontrolled hypertension get their blood pressure (BP) under control. The study findings were presented at a press briefing in Tampa, Florida at the American Telemedicine Association’s (ATA) 16th Annual International Meeting last week and discussed later in this report.
Telehealth: The New Frontier
Telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients’ health status. Closely associated with telemedicine is the term “telehealth,” which is often used to encompass a broader definition of remote healthcare that does not always involve clinical services. Videoconferencing, transmission of still images, e-health including patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education and nursing call centers are all considered part of telemedicine and telehealth.
Telemedicine is not a separate medical specialty. Products and services related to telemedicine are often part of a larger investment by health care institutions in either information technology or the delivery of clinical care. Even in the reimbursement fee structure, there is usually no distinction made between services provided on site and those provided through telemedicine and often no separate coding required for billing of remote services.
Of course, nothing replaces weight loss and proper diet. But communications technology can be used as a means to inform, monitor and support patients and health care providers and medical companies are quickly learning how to leverage emerging communication and electronic technologies to make diabetes management more efficient, reducing hospitalizations and ultimately decreasing the cost of the disease to individuals and on society.
Mobile Health: The New Hot Topic
Dale C. Alverson, MD, ATA president and medical director of the Center for Telehealth at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, said “mobile health, or mHealth, is the hot topic in telemedicine technology. These are applications for remote monitoring of patients with chronic disease, such as diabetes and chronic congestive heart failure, through a mobile phone-based system.”
This technology is “becoming ubiquitous,” he added, “and in our program, we are seeing the providers and the patients adopting this technology in ways we may never have dreamed of. It adds that mobility and that sense of connection between patient and provider.”
This was ably demonstrated by Joseph Cafazzo, PhD, PEng, senior director of eHealth Innovation at the University Health Network, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues who developed and tested an mHealth intervention to automate capture of BP readings through a mobile-phone-based system that provides “actionable messages to patients and critical alerts to physicians.”
Their study involved 110 men and women with type 2 diabetes and uncontrolled systolic hypertension. Study subjects had a mean age of 62 years and a mean weight of 90.2 kg (198.4 lbs).
Over the course of 1 year, half of the subjects monitored their BP at home with a standard home BP monitoring system (the control group). The other half used a Bluetooth-enabled BP monitor that transmitted readings through a mobile-phone-based remote patient monitoring system to their family physician (the intervention group). These patients were also given automated reminders after 3 days of not taking their measurements.
At baseline, patients’ mean daytime BP was 142.7/77.1 mm Hg. After 1 year, Dr. Cafazzo reported, the intervention group had a 9.1 mm Hg dip in systolic BP (P < .0001) and a 4.6 mm Hg dip in diastolic BP (P < .0001). In contrast, there was virtually no change in the control group. According to the investigators, “50% of patients in the telemonitoring group had their BP under good control (130/80 mm Hg),” compared with only 29% in the control group (P < .05).
Self-awareness: Gateway to Better Self-care
“The family doctors caring for these patients really had nothing to do with the improvements. This was really a self-care tool and the patients were performing better self-care because they were more self-aware, more accountable,” Dr. Cafazzo said.
By contrast, study patients who merely checked their BP at home, without reporting it to their physician through the remote system, had no marked change in BP during the study. “The act of just giving a patient a [BP] home monitor had no effect; it had to have the telemonitoring component,” Dr Cafazzo pointed out.
“We believe that patients become far more self-aware and more accountable to their care provider knowing that the data are going back to their care provider and that the care provider will be acting on it,” he explained.
During the briefing, Dr. Cafazzo also shared similarly promising findings from a recently completed study in which a mobile-phone-based system significantly improved uncontrolled BP in a group of chronic heart failure patients.
For the heart failure patient, he explained, “we have a decision support engine that looks at the data and only sends relevant data to the clinician when the algorithm determines that the patient is deteriorating at home.” This is a “first of its kind,” he added, in terms of using a mobile-phone-based system to monitor multiple parameters.
Next Target: Adolescents With Diabetes
Dr. Cafazzo also presented preliminary findings from the first clinical trial of an iPhone application called “Bant,” which has a fully integrated glucometer and targets adolescents 12 to 16 years of age with type 1 diabetes. The study currently has 28 adolescents enrolled.
“This is a very difficult population,” he said. “They are transitioning from being totally dependent on their parent’s care to asserting their independence, and unfortunately their HbA1c often starts to increase. We knew this population would be amenable to the iPhone, but that their attention span would be very short.”
To entice these young people, the researchers incorporated a social networking application. “There is essentially a microblogging chat room where these kids can exchange their experiences; so far, kids are using it and usually they talk about music, the iPhone, anything but their diabetes,” Dr. Cafazzo reported.
There is also a redeemable point system that rewards participants with iTunes for taking and reporting their blood sugar levels regularly. “The rewards mechanism appears to be working very well,” Dr. Cafazzo said.
Not surprisingly, it is because of studies like these that the health care market is seeing a large influx of companies who are putting technology to use in a growing field of healthcare communications and health-record management. At a basic level, this means using technology to manage health records and share information with a patient’s physician or other approved health care providers and caregivers ‒ including family members. At an advanced level, the possibilities are endless.
Sources: American Telemedicine Association, Medscape News, PubMed