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The war on diabetes goes digital
DIABETES is one of the fastest growing health challenges of the 21st century. In Singapore, the prevalence of diabetes in adults aged 18 and above has nearly doubled in just 15 years - from 7 per cent in 2004 to 13.7 per cent today (about 606,000 people).
What is perhaps of most concern about the diabetes trend is how unaware people remain of it.
"Diabetes is a silent disease," explained Pedro Goncalves, head of Roche Diabetes Care Region International (APAC, Middle-East, Africa, Russia & LATAM). "You can have it and not know it until it's quite late."
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimates that half of adults with diabetes - about 232 million people worldwide - are undiagnosed, which puts them at high risk of developing serious diabetes-related complications such as blindness, nerve damage, heart disease and limb amputation. Singapore, for example, has the world's highest rate of diabetic kidney failure, despite its proclaimed war on diabetes.
Therefore, companies such as Roche Diabetes Care have begun investing in digital alternatives to help people track their health information.
"It's very important to have information on glucose levels and other markers immediately accessible by doctors and healthcare professionals," said Mr Goncalves. Digital technology that can facilitate quicker, easier consolidation of such information will help diabetes patients get better at staying within healthy ranges, he added.
The advent of digital technology is timely as the cost of diabetes treatment is increasing at double-digit rates throughout Asia. In Singapore alone, over S$1 billion is spent each year on managing diabetes.
Rising trends skew disproportionately towards Type 2 diabetes, driven by growing urbanisation and changing lifestyle habits (higher calorie intake, increasing consumption of processed foods, sedentary lifestyles), said Mr Goncalves. This makes diabetes difficult to detect and manage without regular visits to the doctor.
"It's not about providing only clinical decisions like prescribing, it's really about helping them understand what they do, what they eat, how to balance their lifestyle so they can control the disease better," he said.
Compared to traditional methods, digital technology is able to facilitate not only reactive treatment but also proactive prevention, which many healthcare professionals agree is both more effective and less costly for disease management.
"It's about preventive action and the need to work on the early stage of diabetes, so we avoid this epidemic that is taking place in Asia more than anywhere else in the world," said Mr Goncalves.
One such digital solution is mySugr, a free mobile app for managing diabetes that collects and consolidates relevant therapy data in one place through external devices, integrations, and manual entry. Since its June launch in Singapore, the app has garnered nearly 9,000 users.
"The data allows us to zero in on the areas we can improve on, be it adjusting medicine dosage or food intake, so that I can live as normally as I can," said mySugr user Shane Sim, 31. "It is definitely better than the old school way of using a pen and paper logbook, which is very inconvenient to carry around."
Making diabetes "suck less", as the app's tagline claims, is a helpful motivator for diabetes patients who struggle daily with having to keep track of meals, medications, blood sugar levels and other important data. Said Heng Pei Yan, 33: "I appreciate the constant improvements and modifications made to the app to make blood sugar monitoring fun for users."
"It's a very user-friendly interface," said Eileen Lee, head of communications at Roche Diabetes Care. "It's very gamified, it's very easy to enter your data, so it's not complicated, even for older users."
With the burden of disease management lightened and streamlined by digital solutions, better outcomes can be expected, said Mr Goncalves.
"Patients only see a doctor once per year or twice. It's impossible to manage a disease that is influenced by behaviour if you don't have permanent support," he explained. "We need to find other ways of providing support to people, and that's exactly where digital solutions come in."
For S$210, mySugr also offers a three-month subscription plan for mySugr Coaching, an in-app add-on bundle of special features that includes access to direct communication with diabetes educators for personalised advice between clinic visits.
The growing capabilities of healthcare technology aside, the responsibility to take action remains key to health and disease management.
"Technology is just the bridge to help you do things right," said Mr Goncalves. "But it takes a while for humans to change their behaviour ... and that's always a challenge."