A group of engineering students at Michigan State University have created a prototype insulin pump which talks, designed to help the visually impaired use their pumps more safely.

Visual problems among diabetics in the U.S. are a bigger problem than most of the population realizes. A 2008 report from the National Institutes of Health found that more than half of the 18 million U.S. diabetics have suffered diabetic retinopathy, a condition which causes harmful changes to the retina and can lead to visual impairment or even blindness.

But soon, technology may become available which could change the game in diabetes treatment. A group of engineering students have developed an approach that could give blind or vision-impaired diabetics a chance to benefit from insulin pumps—by having the pump speak to them.

Pump tied to better outcomes

At least one recent study published in the Lancet suggests that an insulin pump may be more helpful than insulin injections in controlling diabetes.

The OpT2mise study found that when diabetics with poorly controlled sugar were switched to insulin pumps, the pump improved HbA1c levels by -0.7% at six months over insulin shots, and that twice as many people reached the targeted HbA1C level of 8 or lower compared with insulin injections.

With this kind of academic support for insulin pumps, it seems like a good idea to help every qualified diabetic—including the visually impaired—have a shot at succeeding with one. The problem is that if the diabetic can’t adequately see the device, they may not be able to operate it properly. So how can the healthcare technology industry help?

Engineering students make pump talk

Enter a group of four college students from Michigan State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who developed an interest in making the insulin pump accessible to all.

The group has put together a prototype pump, one of two donated by diabetic medical technology provider Asante Solutions Inc., which uses a voice chip to store and then read out recordings stating the names of the pump’s various functions. The prototype also includes a sensor typically used on smartphone touch screens, which connects to the voice chip.

To date the prototype isn’t fully functional, but faculty at MSU hope to keep pushing the idea forward with new students now that the original team has graduated. Stephen Blosser, assistive technology specialist with MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, who served as a mentor to the original quartet of students, told the Detroit Free Press that he’ll need to raise about $4,000 in additional funding to keep the project moving.

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.