Introduction and overview
A CNBC report from earlier today claims that Apple is working on a new version of the Apple Watch with the aim of enabling the device to non-intrusively monitor blood glucose levels. It's described as the "holy grail for treating diabetes." Currently monitoring glucose levels for Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetics involve multiple "pinpricks" per day with a needle in the finger to draw blood, and have the blood sample read by a small machine. Non-intrusive glucose monitoring would mean these pinpricks would either become unnecessary or required less often, as blood sugar levels could be read through the skin on a watch-like device. I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes nearly 16 years ago, and can conclusively say non-intrusive glucose monitoring would be life changing.
It's not the first time it's been reported that Apple is working on such a thing, but it's the first time this has been reported by a credible source. This excites me beyond belief, as it would transform diabetes management. I know it probably won't be a reality soon. However, when it does come to fruition it'll have a profound impact. This post aims to solidify some thoughts about the impact it could have for both diabetics and non-diabetics.
What would this mean for existing diabetics?
This would be the biggest change to diabetes management since the insulin pump. For those who don't know, an insulin pump is a device worn by diabetics that administers insulin on a regular basis through a cannula - which spares the user from manually injecting insulin multiple times throughout the day. You can't have too much control over your diabetes. Sugar levels in the human body fluctuate constantly, and having data recorded every 15-30 minutes would be a massive leap forward over the 4-6 data points most diabetes record per day currently. With intelligent software, being able to identify and act upon trends in this data will almost definitely lead to better management. Being able to smooth fluctuations in sugar levels will not only help a diabetic feel better day-to-day, but also limits the risk of them experiencing complications later in life. A simple tap on the wrist alerting you that your sugar level is rising or falling out of range would prove vital, particularly overnight. This won't only improve lives, but it has the potential to save them. For a device like this to be a success, it doesn't have to be 100% accurate. Even the blood glucose monitors we use currently aren't that accurate. It would just need to identify trends in a wearer's sugar level, and then that data could be acted upon (either with treatment, or a follow-up blood sample check). The end goal would be to rely on the non-intrusive monitoring entirely, but that might take many years of iteration and progress.
What would this mean for non-diabetics?
Those without diabetes stand to benefit from glucose monitoring too, just like those of us without known heart problems stand to benefit from heart rate monitoring in the existing models of Apple Watch. Being on top of one's sugar level is just another way to be more in tune with your health. Realising how eating a doughnut, or exercising affects your sugar level allows you to make better decisions. Not only that but wearing a device that collects this data could help to identify diabetes at an early stage - before it has serious health implications. As it stands, the onset of Type 1 Diabetes is pretty quick, but Type 2 diabetes can take significantly longer (years).
Apple's product line
From a product perspective, it begs the question - is this an add-on to the Apple Watch, or will glucose monitoring just be an addition to the product for everyone's benefit? Apple doesn't charge more for a watch with heart rate monitoring currently, but it isn't as much of a research and development challenge. They could treat it as a medical device, and price it accordingly - many thousands of dollars. With everything I know about Apple, I think this is unlikely. They are a consumer tech company, and this would just be a value-add to an existing product line. This makes more sense and increases the overall value of being in the Apple Health ecosystem.
Changing the world
So often tech companies talk about changing the world. It's almost a joke in Silicon Valley. Everyone is rushing around, hoping to create the "next big thing." Often, that said thing is just as significant as new emoji. Non-intrusive glucose monitoring is the type of technology that is truly transformative. Health and fitness are broad areas, but the focus on enabling and empowering people to lead healthier lives is a noble one. Technology such as this truly makes lives better. Not just more convenient, but better. It improves lives, and can also save lives. This kind of work is important. Would you rather be the engineer or scientist who works on Facebook's ad tech, or the one who makes non-intrusive glucose monitoring a reality? I know which side of the coin I'd rather be on.
Future of technology
Not too long ago a friend asked, "Where can technology go from here? Are laptops and phones just going to keep getting bigger and faster? What's left to innovate on?" I now have an answer to that question. The next step is companies competing to create things that improve lives. Sure, they're for-profit, and they want a return on the research and development investment, but that's a good thing. There's financial incentive to create the best possible product because that's what will benefit customers the most. If it's good enough, I doubt there will be a single diabetes educator or endocrinologist who fails to recommend an Apple Watch (or equivalent device) to their patients.
It seems as though Apple have the lead with development in this field, and that's why this post was based on their device. However, this applies to any company who masters this technology first. There's not only a lot of possible financial gains, but also the opportunity to have a positive impact on the health of millions of people around the world.