Diabetes, one of the world’s leading causes of death and disability, afflicts over 400 million people. Many new technologies are being developed to address this global epidemic, but those with the greatest impact will likely be low-cost mobile solutions that can be applied in emerging markets.
Over three-quarters of the world’s diabetics live in low- and middle-income countries. China and India have the largest number of cases; the disease also rages in Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. As incidence continues to increase in most of the emerging world, patients and healthcare systems face mounting pressures.
Rising affluence and rapid urbanization in emerging markets could make the situation worse in coming years. As millions flock to congested megacities and take on office jobs, they are spending more time in their seats and less time moving. They are also eating too much and subjecting themselves to new stresses that increase risk of Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease.
Imagine, for instance, the life of a typical office worker in Manila. Her day starts with a two-hour commute—a common ritual for people in cities with poor infrastructure and grinding traffic problems. Once she gets to the office, she spends the next ten hours sitting at her desk. She only has thirty minutes and a hundred pesos for lunch, so her default option is a greasy burger and fries at a nearby fast-food restaurant. She’s stressed out, living on junk food, sitting all day, and steadily gaining girth. Before she knows it, she’s diabetic.
Living with diabetes is a drag. A metabolic disorder that interferes with the body’s ability to manage blood glucose, it often requires major lifestyle adjustments. If the condition progresses, it can necessitate medications, continuous blood glucose monitoring, daily insulin injections, and other burdensome procedures. And if left untreated, it can lead to serious complications like chronic fatigue, neuropathy, and organ failure.
Many new technologies—including disease management apps, connected medical devices, and telemedicine platforms—can help ease the burden. So can emerging capabilities in data science and genomics that enable personalized treatments and more effective public health programs. Futuristic solutions like glucose-sensing contact lenses and temporary tattoos are already in development.
Yet for the hundreds of millions of diabetics living in emerging markets, the newest gadgets and most cutting-edge services are too expensive and too complex to offer much benefit. Low-cost public health and disease management programs, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly possible and effective as mobile penetration soars around the world.
The fight against diabetes starts with prevention. Remember that Filipino office worker? Like many of her peers, she’s probably spending a good chunk of her commute surfing Facebook on her phone. And in doing so, she’s generating detailed demographic and behavioral data that can be used to assess her risk profile and nudge her towards better health with targeted campaigns. If she likes fast food, for instance, she might be a prime candidate for an ad promoting healthy eating. If she recently joined a patient group for diabetics, she might benefit from knowing about a new disease management program.
Other platforms can help too. I work at mClinica, a health tech company focused on Asia’s emerging markets. It runs patient management programs that use mobile messaging to encourage healthy behaviors. When a patient comes to a pharmacy in the mClinica network and requests a medicine in the program, they can opt-in to receive automated health education messages. Simply reminding patients to take their meds, eat well, and exercise regularly can go a long way towards improving health outcomes.
mClinica also uses its platforms to collect data on patient behaviors, emerging disease trends, physician prescribing habits, and bottlenecks in pharmaceutical supply chains, which are difficult to spot in data-poor markets. We license this data to private companies, as well as NGOs and governments that want to better monitor and manage their public health programs.
Diabetes prevention campaigns can benefit from partnering with the many NGOs leveraging mobile tech to fight tuberculosis (TB), which recently surpassed HIV/AIDS as world’s deadliest infectious disease. NGOs like FHI360 and Operation ASHA, which Techonomy profiled in January, use mobile apps for health worker education, field force management, and patient engagement. Since diabetics are 2-3 times more likely to get TB, and many TB patients are also diabetic, the same tech platforms can be used simultaneously for both diseases.
Partnership opportunities of this sort were discussed at a recent conference in Bali on the looming co-epidemic of TB and diabetes, where I spoke about how tech tools and public health. The conference, convened by the Indonesian Ministry of Health, The Union, and the World Diabetes Foundation, brought focus to the power of mobile and social platforms for diabetes prevention and treatment.
High-tech solutions will certainly play an important role in curbing the global diabetes epidemic. Yet much of the tech needed to stop this crisis already exists in the mobile phones and social media accounts that are so ubiquitous in emerging markets today. What’s most needed are passionate innovators who can leverage those platforms for the benefit of global health.
Will Greene is a healthcare technologist and researcher based in Vietnam. You can find him on LinkedIn.