My iPod, My Cell, My Insulin Pump

Medical device makers are taking cues from user-friendly tech gadgets

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Tom Baldwin, a 43-year-old flight attendant, wears two sleek gadgets strapped to his belt. One is an iPhone and the other is a compact insulin pump and glucose monitor called the Paradigm Real-Time (PRT) System made by medical device giant Medtronic (MDT ). It features user-friendly control buttons and a screen that displays Baldwin's glucose levels, measured up to 288 times a day, from a fine needle lodged in the skin of his abdomen. "I used to be self-conscious about taking insulin shots or using my pump," says Baldwin. But the device, which he wears day and night and replaces with fresh insulin every three days, rarely draws curious stares. It "looks like a pager," he says.

In an effort to provide better care for the world's surging population of diabetics, medical device makers are teaming up with industrial designers and seeking inspiration in popular consumer products such as MP3 players and cell phones. The goal is to come up with more intuitive user interfaces and design flourishes that will prompt patients to manage their diseases more effectively—and win more customer loyalty. Design has become a "primary focus," says Dr. Alan Marcus, global director of medical affairs at Medtronic. "We're actively moving in that direction."

Recent research bears out Baldwin's assertion that design can influence how a patient deals with his disease. At a meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Amsterdam, Italian researchers said they looked at quality-of-life issues for 1,341 patients with type 1 diabetes. They found people who used pumps such as the PRT System experienced 70% less therapy-related dissatisfaction than those who repeatedly inject themselves.

Demand for these well-designed tools is growing. Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., estimates the U.S. market for blood-testing equipment and other products to monitor diabetes tallied $3.5 billion last year, up 12% from 2005. Monali Patel, director of the firm's health-care research department, acknowledges there may be a "saturation factor" someday. At the same time, she notes, "the number of diabetics keeps increasing, even among children." The International Diabetes Federation expects the patient population worldwide to reach crisis proportions by 2025—perhaps as many as 380 million, up from about 246 million today.

Anticipating this surge, device makers have redoubled efforts to come up with more elegant solutions. Insulet (PODD ), in Bedford, Mass., teamed up with design firm Continuum to create the OmniPod. Attached to the body by a thin tube, the product's compact insulin pump syncs wirelessly with a preprogrammed controller that looks like a smartphone.

Another diabetes startup, HealthPia America, received approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in August to market the GlucoPhone, a glucose meter that can be attached to selected LG Electronics and Motorola mobile phones. To use it, a diabetic pricks his finger, dabs the blood on a paper strip, and inserts the strip in a special slot in the phone attachment. An internal reader analyzes the sample in 9 seconds, the phone displays the results, and—if the patient wishes—sends the data to a medical professional.


Cool shapes and clever add-ons are no substitute for accuracy, says Patel. "We should ask if the new devices have been designed to minimize [blood glucose] sampling error," she says.

The most successful device makers, however, take accuracy as a baseline and then think about enhancements. For Medicom, a unit of Bang & Olufsen, the Danish company better known for high-end audio and video gear, one target is improving compliance with patients' insulin regimens. Medicom is currently developing an insulin injection tool called the C-Cap. Shaped like a pen, it beeps and flashes a short green light every 4 to 24 hours to remind a diabetic to inject insulin. If the pen isn't used within an hour of a warning, a red light flashes. The device also confirms each injection with a long green flash.

By Reena Jana

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