TechMunch: From smart socks to smart patches and pens – innovations in diabetes technology

With Gartner predicting that by 2020 the global M-health (mobile health) industry will be worth a staggering $38billion, health tech, health apps and of course wearable devices are big business and are increasingly a part of our everyday lives. I for one am disappointed if I don’t clock up the recommended 10,000 steps a day on my tracker and will go out of my way to make sure I do – even if it means extra trips to the printer on the other side of the office for instance, or getting coffee around the corner from work. Every steps counts… at least for me anyway!

These confessions aside, monitoring our health, fitness and activity levels with wearables and apps is now considered normal by most and such devices are not uncommon. Indeed, whenever wearables and wearable tech come in to conversation, a range of apps, gadgets and gizmos will inevitably spring to mind.

However, while I am well-versed in using a fitness tracker and readily admit to my 10,000 steps a day habit, I was recently reminded of the fact that alongside helping us to stay fitter and more active, wearable devices and M-health technology can have a very real, tangible impact on a multitude of serious health conditions. In this case, I’m talking about diabetes.

To add some context, just last week I saw an article shared by a friend of mine with diabetes which drew my attention to the fact that a small ‘smart patch’– just the size of a £2 coin – could be life changing for sufferers and put an end to the traditional finger-prick test currently used to monitor blood sugar levels.

The patch, which is replaced every two weeks and is worn on the back of your arm, comprises of a micro filament which pierces the skin and measures glucose levels. It then transmits the blood sugar readings in real-time using near-field communication to connected mobile devices. The data collected is then stored for up to 90 days and this wealth of information provides a historical snapshot of a patient’s personal glucose levels over time and allows users to identify trends based on their personal results. For parents, the patch technology also has multiple benefits as alongside being pain free, the data collected can be sent to their mobiles whilst their children are at school, allowing for constant, ‘tear-free’ monitoring and peace of mind.

Although the ‘smart’ glucose monitoring patch is not yet available to the general public on the NHS, there are some 20,000 people in the UK already using and benefitting from this pain-free monitoring technology. Real-world data is already confirming that patients are checking their glucose levels more frequently – owing to the ease of the using patch. A quick google of the topic also pulled up a many articles and discussions on the tech over the past few months and showed the interest and promise of the technology.

However, while I am admittedly a little late to the party on this smart technology currently making waves in the diabetes community, further research into tech innovations was both enlightening and encouraging. For instance, both type 1 and type 2 diabetes patients are unfortunately prone to experiencing foot swelling which can lead to more serious problems like infections and amputations. To combat this issue, a health tracking start-up has created ‘smart socks’ which use temperature sensors to detect areas of swelling on the feet and notify wearers in real-time via an alert to a mobile app – ultimately preventing further injury.

Elsewhere, the possibilities of ‘Smart Insulin’ is being researched by scientists at the University of Birmingham who are developing smart capsules which travel through the body and automatically release insulin when they come into contact with high levels of blood sugar. Whilst a long-term research project at the moment, this is a really exciting potential new treatment. Also, in the long-term is another sensor being developed by scientists in South Korea which monitors blood sugar levels by analysing sweaty skin. It is hoped that it could eventually help patients with diabetes in a similar way to the aforementioned Smart Insulin patch.

In the more immediate term, companies are beginning to develop and roll out smart insulin pens which not only calculate your dosage, they also track and record doses to help ensure you don’t forget to take your insulin shot after meals.

From smart patches to smart insulin pens and even smart sensor socks, these examples are just a flavour of some of the innovations in the diabetes space at the moment and it’s encouraging to see technology in use within the healthcare space. Just researching for this short blog post was a reminder to me of the benefits and promise of health tech and the innovations it can bring for patients. M-health and health tech is so much more than just activity tracking and fitness and I’m personally looking forward to seeing what’s next and the innovations of the future.

Lucy Hewson, Senior Account Executive, Technology