Big Data

How to Combat the Diabetes Pandemic

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Four years ago, I met a woman in Berlin who convinced me that the healthcare community had to change the way it was addressing diabetes.

The woman and her two beautiful children, ages 2 and 5, both with diabetes, attended an awareness event Medtronic hosted at the German Parliament. She told me that there’s no vacation from diabetes. She got up 10 times each night to measure her children’s blood glucose levels. She struggled with diabetes every minute of every day, and she feared that her kids would live under its dark cloud all the days of their lives.

I thought: there must be more we can do.

These days, the healthcare community is doing more. Medtronic is making glucose monitors that are more accurate and insulin pumps that are more effective, and analyzing the data produced by these devices to improve outcomes for people with diabetes.

Now, Medtronic and IBM are attempting to take diabetes care to the next level. We’re combining Medtronic’s expertise in diabetes treatment with IBM’s Watson cognitive technologies–with a goal of developing Medtronic solutions that help people with diabetes improve their health, reducing the burden of managing their condition, and keep enjoying their lives.

We’ve been working together since April to build cognitive solutions for diabetes management, and in a pilot to see how Watson can help people with diabetes, we took 600 anonymous patient cases and applied cognitive analytics to the data from Medtronic insulin pumps and glucose monitors. And we found that we were able to predict hypoglycemia –extreme low blood sugar –up to three hours in advance of onset—early enough so a person with diabetes could take action to prevent a potentially dangerous health event.

There’s tremendous potential here. By collecting real-time streaming data, combining it with contextual information, and analyzing it for signals and patterns, we at Medtronic believe it may one day be possible to help people make the right decisions at critical moments in their day-to-day lives.

Diabetes is one of the greatest global health threats. Today, 415 million adults worldwide have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, and that total is expected to grow to more than 600 million by 2040. It’s a scourge for individuals, a challenge for the healthcare community and a huge financial burden for society. In the United States alone, $240 billion is spent every year on diabetes care.

Individuals with diabetes take the brunt of it, of course. They see their doctors for a few minutes every few months, so it’s largely up to them to manage their conditions—finding a balance between not having enough sugar in their blood and having too much. If their glucose level drops too low, they face the threat of hypoglycemia, which can cause confusion or disorientation and in its most severe forms loss of consciousness, coma or even death. If it’s too high over a long period of time, they risk cardiac disease, blindness, renal failure and amputation of fingers and limbs.

Medtronic started as a medical device company. Now we’re on a journey to becoming a healthcare solutions company. We don’t just design and sell devices; we take partial ownership of the outcomes that can be achieved for patients. We’re involved in data management, care coordination, and coaching. We provide patients and healthcare clinicians with the insights they need to manage a wide array of diseases and medical conditions.

It’s essential for Medtronic to make this transition because the world’s healthcare systems are shifting from payment for services to payment for outcomes. Because of that shift, we believe we have an imperative to make use of data that could help people with diabetes use our devices in the most effective way to manage their disease.

Our collaboration with IBM is aimed at providing personalized diabetes management. We’re building Medtronic apps that will apply cognitive computing to data from Medtronic devices (glucose monitors and insulin pumps) and we expect to include other information sources—such as GPS, wearable activity trackers, and calendar details. The solutions we’re co-developing with IBM may one day enable Medtronic to provide real-time insights and coaching to help people understand the impact of daily activities on their diabetes and make adjustments as needed.

My dream is for people like that German mother and her kids to be able to have their own personal diabetes application assisting them at all times. My dream is that this type of solution could alert them before an emergency arises and empower them to control their health. That’s why at Medtronic, we are fast at work, researching and developing these cognitive solutions that could one day relieve them of the stress of constantly managing this relentless disease.


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