In yesterday’s MJA, there was an article about diabetes apps, written by two Australian endocrinologists, Dr Rahul Barmanray and Dr Esther Briganti. The article is a commentary of concerns of current apps in a highly unregulated system. (Read it here; or read the MJA Insight article here.)

There are currently over 1,500 diabetes apps available online. At the World Diabetes Congress back in 2015, Ellie Strock from Voluntis reported there were 800. The growth here is substantial and will only continue.

Most diabetes apps (in fact, most medical apps) are in no way regulated. In Australia, only a very small number have been through the TGA approval process. (Also at WDC in 2015, Ellie Strock said that of the 165,000 mHealth apps that were available at that time, only 103, or 0.06%, had FDA approval.)

I think that the writers are right: we need to be better at gathering and providing some decent evidence about the efficacy and safety of these apps (just as with any diabetes management tool). And it was great that they highlighted privacy issues: apps collect a lot of data (personal as well as medical), and some if this is shared with third parties. People with diabetes should be aware  of – and have a right to know – just how our data is being used.

However, I found the article to be sightly alarmist, and somewhat out of touch with aspects of day-to-day diabetes, and what PWD are looking for when it comes to digital solutions.

The realities of diabetes mean that every single day, we are making many, many choices and a lot of those are to do with dosing of insulin. We do this by combining the information we’ve been given by our HCPs, what we have come to learn about our own particular brand of diabetes, what we have learnt from our peers, and the technology we choose to employ to help us deliver that insulin. For me, that technology is a highly sophisticated app that provides me with bolus advice after I tell it how many carbs I’m about to eat. Once it has worked out its calculations (clever Loop!) I either agree and tell it to deliver, or override and put in my own number.

The article states:

‘Although apps increasingly advise on insulin doses, there is minimal published information on safety and efficacy, despite these apps effectively providing drug treatment recommendations without health care professional oversight.’

This sentence made me shake my head in disbelief. ‘Drug treatment without HCP oversight’ is my every day with diabetes. In fact, it’s reality for just about every person I know using insulin. Do HCPs really believe that they, and they alone provide oversight into our insulin doses?

There are a number of things we need to think about here. Firstly, as so often, we need to consider education. Apps should never be considered the ‘set and forget’ way to manage diabetes…but then, neither should any diabetes technology. Actually, neither should one-off diabetes education!

Our day one education when using insulin must start to provide an understanding of how it works, and that education must be refreshed and refreshed and REFRESHED. Even as someone in the ‘hand out all the diabetes technology at diagnosis’ camp, I know it is essential that people with diabetes understand insulin to carb ratios, insulin sensitivity factors and how to calculate our bolus insulin doses.

The thing is – we’re not getting that education a lot of the time. And if we don’t know we need it, we don’t know to ask for it. If we’re turning to apps to help us manage our diabetes, we probably do need some guidance about how to stay safe while using them, especially if PWD are diagnosed today when we expect there to be technology – such as apps – to make things more convenient.

Are the apps any less safe than what people are already doing with the limited education that is on offer for most people? I am astounded at the stories I hear of people diagnosed with diabetes being sent home with a syringe and a bottle of insulin and told to come back in a few days. I hear this repeatedly, so perhaps shouldn’t be too astounded.

We can’t blame the technology for not being accurate or smart enough if we haven’t been given the education to know that! Somewhere in there must be some HCP responsibility to educate PWD on what works and what doesn’t. And part of education these days must be about using technology, safely – with acknowledgment that technology is more than just a blood glucose meter, and does indeed include phone apps.

Apps exist because there is a gap in the market. That gap is that people are looking for ways to help make diabetes a little easier, whether that be prompting us to take our drugs at a certain time of the day, log and analyse our glucose levels, collecting and storing carb and other nutrient values for different foods, or helping us to calculate bolus doses.

We look to technology (including apps) to help us, and to work with and augment what we already know through the education we have received or have learnt from our HCPs – or at least, should have received.

While many of the apps claim that they will help lower A1c, I do wonder if that is the main reason that PWD decide to try a diabetes app. Is it that they are looking for improved diabetes management, or is it really just wanting some help in the constant tasks required to manage diabetes effectively?

As always, I look to my own experience as the only one I truly know and understand, and I can say with great confidence that I have never ever taken on any app with that intent. It’s always been about making things easier and reducing the burden of diabetes. Today, I rely on a highly unregulated app to do a lot of my day to day diabetes management. But because I have been fortunate to have the education I need, I am confident in doing that.

Apps are not evil or dangerous. TECHNOLOGY is not evil or dangerous. The real risks to people with diabetes is not having the right education to make informed, educated, confident decisions and choices about our diabetes; that same education that would help us assess the safety of the apps mentioned in the article.

Look, I am not saying that there shouldn’t be concerns about unregulated apps, or that we shouldn’t be having these conversations. Of course we bloody well should (and should have been for a long time; apps are not new).

But in there with the criticism and concern, there needs to be more acknowledgement of why people are turning to apps. Because otherwise, it looks like just another example of HCPs trying to stifle advancements in diabetes technology.

My highly unregulated app of choice, in a highly unregulated world of apps.