Diabetes Digital Media founder on being accepted onto NHS accelerator and healthcare’s future

Web content editor Ian Bolland caught up with the founder of Diabetes Digital Media and the author of Machine Learning and AI for Healthcare Arjun Panesar about getting onto the NHS Innovation Accelerator, as well as the future of healthcare. 

The founder of Diabetes Digital Media, who developed the Low Carb Program, has explained that changing the conversation surrounding type 2 diabetes was a key factor into being accepted onto the NHS Innovation Accelerator.

Arjun Panesar suggested that the method that was developed was outside the boundaries of conventional treatment, and brought about a different approach when it came to discussing the condition.

He said: “Type 2 diabetes until about three years ago has been considered to be chronic and progressive and that’s because typically it’s not understood as a sugar intolerance.

“You’re insulin resistant which means you’ve got too much sugar in your blood and subsequently there’s too much insulin in your blood and you become resistant to the insulin you’re producing.

“When I graduated in 2006 my Masters’ thesis was on how, if you pull people together, that experience improves and I did it on websearch such as geolocation which 15 years ago wasn’t a thing. But really what happened is we permitted these conversations to happen and about six, seven years ago we conducted quite a thorough data mining analysis forum and it was really fascinating because people with type 2 diabetes – all conversations were really about sugar, starch and carbohydrates.”

In 2003, Panesar had launched diabetes.co.uk, which has since evolved into a large online diabetes community with over 300,000 people sharing their experiences of diabetes.

Recent statistics from Diabetes.co.uk show that seven out of 10 users improved their understanding of the condition through using the forum. Almost half of users improved their confidence in managing their diabetes, with 44% reporting an improvement in the blood sugar control since joining the forum.

Panesar explained how the approach he developed could be cost-effective for the health service, and the desire that he and others involved in developing diabetes have to change the conversation from managing the condition to remission, as well as a study that helped pitch the idea to the NHS prior to being accepted onto the programme.

He added: “We followed 1000 people when we launched the programme in 2015 and after a year we saw tremendous engagement of around 70%. What was fascinating was we saw 26% of people who had type 2 diabetes place their type 2 diabetes into remission and this was all about reducing sugar in the diet. We really pitched that to the NHS.

“We were accepted into the NHS innovation accelerator in order to scale type 2 diabetes remission in the NHS.

“People considered type 2 diabetes to be a chronic, progressive disease whereas today the conversation today is about putting this condition into remission; and if you would like to do it with the low carbohydrate approach there’s an app for that. There are three main ways of putting type 2 diabetes into remission, bariatric surgery, very low-calorie diet with shakes and drinks and the low carb approach.

“It’s cost the NHS £21,000 per minute and the complete tragedy is a lot of this is preventable and in order to prevent, to put it into remission, you have to tackle the root causes. Sugar, starch, refined carbohydrates and processed foods are contributions to the reason we’re in such peril at the moment.”

Panesar explained a bit about his background which led to the development of the Low Carb Program, and how being able to talk about the condition free from any guidelines aided its development.

It was originally developed following while studying for his Masters, and at a time when a family member had been diagnosed with the condition.

He said: “My grandfather was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes after having a quadruple heart bypass. At that moment in time we put diabetes.co.uk live and that was the world’s first community for people with diabetes

“When we did that because of the fact we didn’t have a medical bias we really permitted conversations that were outside of guidelines.”

Having recently written Machine Learning and AI for Healthcare, Panesar also has a general opinion on the future of healthcare, suggesting that cost is the big driver behind democratising healthcare via digital health and that cost is threatening organisations such as the NHS, while insurance companies are trying to look to the future.

When discussing his reasons for writing the book, Panesar said: “I actually wrote it with a particular audience in mind. I speak to a lot of people, particularly in the NHS and public health bodies who say: ‘I’ve got lots of data, I just don’t know how to use it.’”

The book makes a lot of points that could be applicable to sectors outside of healthcare, though it touches on many issues in terms of technology and the effect it could have on the healthcare and medical device industry.

There were suggestions there was something of a knowledge gap in terms of what goes behind applications, with Panesar adding: “There are some innovations in augmented reality and virtual reality and the question isn’t what does the app do – it’s what is augmented reality, what is virtual reality? It was always about trying to present possible scenarios and applying it to your domain.”

Panesar believes there has to be a morality about using people’s data that is different compared to other industries but remains sceptical about the level of security.

“Ultimately a lot of organisations in this space are self-regulated really and as a result, what truly is happening with your data, as demonstrated with the Facebook scandal – no-one truly knows.

“If you’re talking about devices that people are relying on to live, pumping insulin into me for instance, it just needs the right enthusiast to want to be able to connect to it via Bluetooth or wi-fi or whatever it is to try and get in and see what they can do… I’m just not convinced those devices have that level of security.”

Over the course of the next 10 years, the founder of Diabetes Digital Media believes that ethics are going to be a key part in shaping the industry, and referred to his work surrounding diabetes.

He said: “In the next 10 years, the ethics is probably a key part, having relationships with computers and at the same time the consequences of that. For me it’s how long-term conditions can be supported and how they can be supported with digital therapies.

“We’ll also see more about the regression of disease and sugar has not been kind to the human population. It’s linked to so many diseases: diabetes, heart disease, stroke – there’s so many cancers, dementia. We’re talking about the impact sugar has had has been monumental. If healthcare is successful in getting people to reduce their sugar intake we’re going to see a huge cost benefit.”

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