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Most Diabetic Seniors Think Health Tracking Apps Are a Good Idea

But almost none of them actually use apps to help manage their diabetes.
Blood glucose testing kit. (Photo: denn/Flickr)

Blood glucose testing kit. (Photo: denn/Flickr)

Diabetes is a chronic illness that's notoriously exhausting to manage. About 90 to 95 percent of adults with diabetes have Type 2—diabetes mellitus—and the risk of developing this subset only worsens with age. Despite this implicit danger, a recent Canadian study found that about half of adults with Type 2 diabetes are not managing their disease in an optimal way.

This is a problem for individuals and society as a whole. Type 2 diabetes usually gets worse over time, and those who don't monitor their blood glucose levels properly can end up developing more serious complications. "In 2012, diabetes and its related complications accounted for $245 billion in total medical costs and lost work and wages," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is growing rapidly.

Sixty-three percent said they felt "burned out" by the constant effort needed to manage diabetes.

There's a budding movement to improve diabetes management through real-time health data tracking, Internet applications, and mobile phone apps. Studies have shown that the use of these apps can improve health outcomes. But older adults, who are much more likely to have diabetes, typically have lower rates of technology use. A new pilot study by researchers at University of Waterloo examines how seniors view health-tracking apps, and whether or not they can be used to improve their diabetes management.

It turns out the perception of health-management apps is pretty positive: 65 percent of participants said using an Internet application to manage diabetes was a good idea, while 54 percent said the same about mobile apps. The participants seemed upbeat about their intentions to use the technology, too: 77 percent said they would use an Internet app, and 48 percent said they'd use a mobile app.

The problem comes at the actual implementation stage. Despite these optimistic views of health-management technology, less than 20 percent actually use Internet apps, and a measly seven percent (two people) use mobile apps. Not surprisingly, those who were younger had more favorable attitudes toward (and stronger intentions to use) the apps.

The researchers write that since this is a pilot study, the results aren't generalizable to a larger population. A total of 44 Canadian adults, all diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, participated in this survey. The average age was 58.7 and the majority (83.7 percent) were Caucasian. They also reported above-average education levels and access to computers (95.2 percent) and daily Internet access (93 percent).

What can app developers and doctors learn from this study? Peter Hall, corresponding author on the study, says that it's essential for developers to consider the target age of the app's users, which could be decades older than them: "This makes it hard for developers to have an intuitive sense of what the user values." In the survey, respondents said they were most interested in glucose tracking options, dietary planning options, and the ability to communicate with health professionals through the apps. And 63 percent said they felt "burned out" by the constant effort needed to manage diabetes, so an emphasis on the convenience and ease of use could help convince seniors to begin using the technology.