Illustration: Jordon Cheung

A day in the life of a diabetes patient is an exercise in micromanagement. Blood sugar metering. Insulin injections. Meal plans. Exercise diaries. Logs filled with heart rate, blood pressure, and even pain measurements. It’s a lot to keep up with, for doctors as well as patients, but it’s also absolutely crucial. Proper diabetes management is key to a patient’s quality of life and to keeping blood sugar levels in line.

For the 387 million people in the world living with diabetes, this is reality. But in many ways, their experience is not so different from that of  the rest of us, who struggle to stay on top of our health and to effectively communicate to our health providers what’s going on with our bodies. In America, about half of all adults suffer from chronic illnesses, and according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, among those who do track their health, about half of them keep up with progress  “in their heads.”

Mobile app development, fueled by cloud technology, is going to change these habits dramatically. Already, wearable technologies, such as Fitbit, and food trackers, are helping us log our meals, movement, and weight. These seemingly simple devices have transformative powers. They have been proved to keep people motivated to exercise and lose weight. According to the Pew study, tracking also leads 40 percent of trackers to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion.

But digital tools are pushing healthcare to the cusp of a much larger transformation than that. Apps designed to improve our health are going far beyond simple one-feature tracking and peer support. The new apps are capable of sharing, analyzing, and visualizing real-time health data across different platforms and populations, inspiring a host of possibilities.

These “wellness 2.0” apps will provide ways for people to take control of their own health and promise to transform our healthcare system by giving doctors valuable new insights and researchers clues to the prevention and management of chronic illness.

“The opportunity to put powerful but simple tools in the hands of an individual...as they try to manage their condition is so compelling,” says Sean M. Hogan, VP and General Manager of IBM Healthcare. “It is absolutely going to change the face of medicine.”

Robin Hrassnigg was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1991. He filled out the usual logs and diaries until he created Diabetizer, a Web-based diabetes-management portal that will launch this fall as a mobile app for iOS and Android named myDIABETIZER. “In the past, you had the diary and, with pen and paper, you put the information in the book. That’s the normal, old way,” says Hrassnigg. “What we give the diabetic is a complete overview about his or her health status, and this information can also be used to discuss the condition with their doctor.”

Diabetizer works by pulling in information from a number of digital tools, including Fitbit, Runkeeper, and nutrition apps. It meshes that data with glucose readings and insulin information and presents an overall picture of health. Among its most useful features: A risk-index screen shows whether blood sugar, cholesterol, BMI, or any number of other indicators is in the danger zone. Graphs allow users to look back over the past week or even the past year to see how weight, heart rate, or blood sugar has fluctuated or to pick up on patterns—maybe blood sugar is spiking on a day after too little exercise, for example.

“The app makes it all easy to handle,” explains Hrassnigg. “You get more motivated in using it because it makes it fun and you get accurate information that you can look back over for yourself. You can look at your information on your mobile in your free time. That is a big advantage [if you want to discuss] your condition with your doctor and for getting a feel for your own health indicators.” Doctors are able to receive a PDF of a patient's latest health stats from the app, via email.

“The opportunity to put powerful, but simple tools in the hands of an individual and be able to maintain a connection with them as they try to manage their condition is so compelling. It is absolutely going to change the face of medicine. Diabetizer is just one example.”

Sean M. Hogan, VP and General Manager of IBM Healthcare

“It’s very important that you have that information with you and not only in the ten minutes that you are discussing with the doctor.” -- the doctor may be with you for ten minutes. “You’ve got more concrete information with you and from all over the world you can get access to your data. And it’s also very really easy for a patient to see what to change to improve my health.”

Robin Hrassnigg, founder of Diabetizer

“The structural shift that we’re wrestling with is the existing systems of care that are all built around acute-care models, but a societal need that is chronic and to be really effective needs to be supported with an ongoing basis outside the hospital environment.”

Sean M. Hogan, VP and General Manager of IBM Healthcare

“What we give the diabetic is a complete overview about his health status with a risk index. And this information can then be used to discuss his condition with his or her doctor or they can send it via PDF to the doctor.”

Robin Hrassnigg, founder of Diabetizer

“If you have information that might come from a fitness tracker to show your physical activity level, plus information from your glucose monitor, and you’re connected to your insulin pump, it's now possible that an app on your phone could tie all this information together to make an updated calculation in real time.”

Sean M. Hogan, VP and General Manager of IBM Healthcare

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A day in the life of doctors who treat diabetes can be tedious. They are tasked with evaluating months of glucose readings and many other health indicators, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes while the patient is in the examining room. As for the patients, we all know what it's like to have a few minutes to explain symptoms during a doctor's appointment.

Wellness apps back up these experiences with data that we can easily share with our physicians, which leads to better recommendations and better outcomes. “The doctor is doing the same job,” says Hrassnigg, “but the patient has more concrete and more detailed information, which can now be easily provided to the doctor for an updated review of a case. That makes it easier to discuss with a doctor.”

What the world could use is more effective digital healthcare tools like Diabetizer, and fast. This is where advances in technology and cloud computing are finally cutting development times and making the process more democratic. Start-ups like Diabetizer, which moved its development over to IBM’s Bluemix cloud-based development platform earlier this year, can access a variety of cloud services instead of investing in expensive architecture. “As a start-up, it was very good for us because the costs were low,” says Hrassnigg. For one thing, he adds, “we didn’t have to invest in a big server infrastructure.”

Developers are also able to use the latest IBM Cloud services, such as IBM Bluemix, which offers a multitude of features and capabilities, to quickly add new functions into their apps. For example, Diabetizer used Bluemix to integrate fitness trackers as well as push notifications, email alerts, and photo storage into the app so that users can upload profile pics or even photos of a physical symptom they may want to share with their doctor.

“What’s so exciting about an application built on IBM Cloud’s development platform is you can put it out to a community and rapidly understand if it’s working,” says Hogan. “That’s vastly preferred to having to create an app and put it out on the market, wait multiple months, and go back into the lab.”

Beyond drastically shorter development times, it also helps make apps effective right out of the gate. Developers are ultimately looking to create apps that people use and return to again and again, which in the case of wellness apps is how the real benefit occurs. In addition to rapid application development and response, IBM Cloud also provides analytics and data-insight services that help developers understand how they can continue to refine their apps to meet patient needs.

Chronic diseases like diabetes are by definition daily and ongoing health issues. They’re caused, treated, and may ultimately be prevented by healthier choices and environmental factors—a fact that’s backed up by hard statistics. “Studies show that only about 10% to 25% of your health status is correlated to the clinical care that you receive and up to 30% associated with your unique genetic makeup,” says Hogan. “The predominant influence, up to 60%, is associated with your health behaviors, social and economic factors, and physical environments.”

Yet our healthcare system is currently set up in opposition to these facts. It deals with our well-being intermittently, through occasional doctor’s visits—or worse, when our health spirals out of control and we are hospitalized. This method of care drives up healthcare costs for everyone, and beyond that, it fails miserably at keeping us well.

“The structural shift that we’re wrestling with is the existing systems of care that are all built around acute-care models,” says Hogan. “But a societal need that is chronic and to be really effective needs to be supported with an ongoing basis outside the hospital environment.” Hogan adds that there's a real need to better understand risk factors for disease so we can improve intervention and prevent disease altogether.

It’s not that we need to cut out doctors while building a new health paradigm. Doctors benefit as much as patients do when we fill in the gaps and keep ourselves well between visits. But digital tools and the data that they collect are proving to be very effective drivers toward 24/7, engaged, empowered, and consumer-driven healthcare.

And these tools are making doctors' lives easier too. As Hogan puts it, “they provide a connection back to the physician without it being overwhelming.”