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New Mobile App Offers Diabetes Patients a “Safety Net”
By Beth W. Orenstein

People with diabetes often have much in common and will do anything to help each other. “They are family,” says Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDN, CDE, of Merrick, New York.

That’s why HelpAround, a peer-support app designed by an Israeli-based startup, has potential. The app was launched for Apple and Android phones in January. The idea came from the developers’ friend who took his son to a National Hockey League game. His son, who has type 1 diabetes, had forgotten to bring his diabetes kit equipped with glucose meter, lancing device, glucose tabs, and emergency glucagon. With more than 21,000 fans in attendance, dad figured at least several hundred people would have what his son might need and would gladly give it to him if they only knew.

When Yishay Knobel and Shlomi Aflalo heard about their friend’s experience, they designed a way for the diabetes community to reach out and help each other. Here’s how it works: People with diabetes sign up on their smartphone. Should they have an emergency, they post what they need. Their post triggers a notification that’s sent to other HelpAround members who are close by and likely able to help. Algorithms and GPS find the people who are the best fits. The request pops up as a message on the potential responders’ mobile phones or an “unread” notification on the app’s icon. Potential helpers can answer publicly or by sending a private text message.

Need for Community Growth
To be most helpful, the HelpAround app will need a greater following. When Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, founder of DiabetesEveryDay, based in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, who has diabetes, tried it, the app displayed five people who were between three and 11 miles from her. “Typically, if someone with diabetes is in dire need of supplies, they will need that supply sooner than ASAP,” she says. “If you need glucose tablets, you would need them within seconds, and it’s highly unlikely someone three miles away could help with that.”

Recently, when Weiner, coauthor of The Complete Diabetes Organizer: Your Guide to a Less Stressful and More Manageable Diabetes Life, attended a diabetes conference in Washington, DC, someone ran into a room looking for a particular test strip. Someone had one and gladly gave it to her. “It was a beautiful thing,” says Weiner, who was recently named the 2015 Diabetes Educator of the Year by the American Association of Diabetes Educators. But Weiner and Smithson worry that while the swaps that occur on HelpAround are only for nonprescription supplies, some people may not be comfortable sharing with strangers. “There needs to be a trust factor anytime you share, so I don’t know if people will feel comfortable right away,” Smithson says.

Questions Answered
The HelpAround app also can be used as a community forum where people ask diabetes-related questions and get responses. However, Smithson says she has some concerns about people who don’t have credentials answering medical questions. “The app doesn’t appear to have a moderator with a medical background and expertise in diabetes care,” she says. “This is a concern.” Since she’s downloaded HelpAround, she gets frequent “notices popping up on my phone, but not one has been for supplies—all have been diabetes management questions,” she says.

HelpAround isn’t the only good option for solving the problem of needing supplies in an emergency, Smithson and Weiner say. Another is the Diabetes Online Community (DOC), a program of the Diabetes Hands Foundation. “DOC can accomplish many of these same goals,” Weiner says. “If someone from the DOC is on Facebook and in a place where someone with diabetes is in need of insulin or something went wrong with a pump and needed something quick, people from the DOC would reach out through Facebook, Twitter, etc, and the response is nothing short of amazing.”

Preventing Emergencies
Planning is the key to managing diabetes well, says Smithson, who tells her patients, “There are definitely situations, and it is a bit of a stress reliever from the start if you are prepared with some extra supplies. I suggest packing a diabetes situation emergency kit similar to an emergency kit you keep in the car or at the office or even at home, and pack extra supplies that you use daily to manage your diabetes.”

In addition, Weiner recommends traveling with twice the amount of supplies patients need so they won’t be stuck too often. Still, she says, “it does happen every so often” where diabetes patients could use a helping hand from others living with the same chronic condition and HelpAround could help.

— Beth W. Orenstein is a freelance health writer based in Northampton, Pennsylvania.