Mature woman with glucometer checking blood sugar level at home

Can real-world data help to tackle diabetes?

  • Research
  • Society

Smart devices make it easy to track how many steps you take, the meals you eat and even your resting heart rate. But how can we use real-world data to help tackle the global challenge of diabetes?

A recently published review from Professor Edward Gregg, Head of RCSI’s School of Population Health, points to the benefits and possible pitfalls of bringing data from the real world to bear on the future of managing diabetes.

One-tenth of the world’s adults now have diabetes, whereby the body cannot regulate blood sugar well. Over time this lack of control increases the risk of sight loss, kidney failure, limb amputation and heart disease. In Ireland alone, the number of people living with Type 2 diabetes has almost doubled in the past 15 years, accounting for more than €550 million per year in direct healthcare costs.

Traditionally, research on how to help prevent and manage diabetes has relied heavily on randomised clinical trials, a gold standard in medical research. These studies assign people at random into different groups for interventions, and then compare a new approach with the standard that is already in place. Over decades, this has led to changes in how to manage diabetes in the clinic, and it has improved quality of life for those living with diabetes.

New data sources

However, large, randomised clinical trials are expensive, time-consuming and don’t always tell us what works best in practice and the real world. So, the prospect of using real-world data from patients, such as healthcare records, insurance claims and measurements as well as non-health data sources for information about behaviour or environmental conditions, is tantalising. These data sources can offer a cheaper, faster way to gather information, and often mean that a more diverse group of people and settings can be included in the study. 

Even so, the use of real-world data in research requires adapting our current standards for study design and analysis to account for the limitations of these new and non-traditional data sources. For example, researchers have less control over how real-world data is gathered, so the potential impact of bias and missing data needs to be considered in analyses to ensure reliable findings.

Where real-world information stands to make a difference too is in tracking the effectiveness of new evidence-based initiatives in diabetes care when they are introduced: real-world data and evidence will provide insights into how research discoveries make a difference to large populations.

At the School of Population Health, RCSI researchers are bringing their expertise together to strengthen approaches using new data sources. Doing this the right way will continue to unlock the benefits of the data all around us.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.