Aaron Neinstein, MD, is Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and Director of Clinical Informatics at the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation. He’s also a practicing endocrinologist.
Let’s start with a prediction: By 2025, everyone with diabetes will be tracking their blood sugar with devices called continuous glucose monitors, and it will be common for many people without diabetes to dabble in tracking, too.
This may sound like a bold statement coming from an endocrinologist (we’re the specialists who manage diabetes), but hear me out. In my practice, I primarily treat people with diabetes, and over the years, technology to help manage the disease has made remarkable strides.
People with diabetes now have alternatives to pricking their fingers with a sharp needle to measure their blood glucose level multiple times per day. Early continuous glucose monitoring systems — the first was released in 1999 by the medical device maker Medtronic — while helpful in some cases, were not widely used because they were painful to insert, bulky, inaccurate, very expensive and still required many calibrations every day with fingersticks.
The technology has improved dramatically. Two of the newest devices, the Dexcom G6 and Abbott Freestyle Libre , no longer require fingerstick calibrations, are FDA-approved for people to make insulin-dosing decisions, and are much easier to insert.
Anybody who has ever done a fingerstick blood glucose knows that it hurts. Inserting a device instead is much less painful than a fingerstick, and the needlestick happens much less frequently. Both devices transmit glucose levels to a smartphone, either wirelessly and continuously, or with a wave of a smartphone over the sensor. Accordingly, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) use has increased in Americans with type 1 diabetes, from 6 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2018. I expect these technologies to continue to get even better — they will get smaller, more accurate, and even smarter as better algorithms are developed and collaborations from between the device companies and tech companies like Alphabet or Apple.
This is a positive trend. For the approximately 1.5 million Americans with type 1 diabetes, CGM has moved far beyond novelty and should represent standard of care.
But, I believe CGM has much larger potential. That includes people with type 2 diabetes (approximately 30 million American adults), the even larger group with pre-diabetes (approximately 81 million American adults), and potentially almost anybody.