You are away from home, then realize you forgot to bring something with you. Now what? If it's a sweater, tampons, or sneakers, you can either do without or buy a replacement. But what if you're a person with diabetes (PwD, as some like to be referred to), sitting in the car in traffic hours from home, realizing it's time to take a blood sugar level measurement, and you forgot to bring enough strips or you left your meds at home?
In the movies, this is when dramatic music sounds, and the hero drifts into unconsciousness, thinking of his true love. In real life, this is very dangerous. Very frustrating too, because diabetes is so prevalent. One person could be turning hypoglycemic without medication, while the person two cars from her has just what she needs.
HelpAround, a free app available in English, Spanish, Hebrew, and French, comes to the rescue. It uses your geographical location as noted by the phone, to make sure we get relevant support. This can come in the shape of supplies you need on the road, or even at the office. But patient power goes beyond that. For example, the company shows a film portraying a diabetic patient who told her doctors she was having new symptoms. The doctor said it was nothing and treated her with what she felt to be disrespect. She described this on HelpAround. Someone responded. He was having the same symptoms and has been diagnosed as having an additional condition. Geographical proximity made it possible for him to recommend his doctor, who not only diagnosed the condition but also treated her properly and respectfully. In fact, several patient organizations, e.g. Manny Hernandez' Diabetes Hands Foundation and Children with Diabetes, have started rolling out regional chapters on the HelpAround platform, demonstrating the point about bringing back the human connection to peer-to-peer support.
A lot of the calls for assistance, such as "My blood sugar level is dropping. Help!" require immediate assistance. The technology on our phones, the same technology that helps us navigate to an outlet mall, identifies where we are and locates other users nearby who aren't otherwise identifiable. After all, they are not waving an "I have diabetes" flag. The HelpAround founders chose diabetes because the model of daily social support among strangers requires very high levels of mutual care and a sense of shared fate, which they claim to have found within the diabetes community.
In 2013, colleagues and I published a paper in the International Medical Informatics Yearbooks on the multiple ways in which people can use the Internet and mobile devices to receive support and information. Our conclusion, perhaps surprising at a time where everything becomes virtual, was that the connection with the real world was very effective, allowing for sustainable behavior change, such that extends over time and makes an impact on one's health.
The idea of a safety network, of patients, for patients, is very empowering. HelpAround users share a disease. They know there is someone just like them who will help them when they need it. They also know they might be called to help. Apart from the medical impact, going beyond the patient role, which can sometimes feel dependent, to that of being a friend, someone who can provide help to others just like him.
This is a new wave in peer-support. In the '80s and '90s patients would sit in circles and talk. In the 2000s people went behind the computer screen into online forums. And in 2015 patients are empowered by their smartphones to connect and support each other while continuing to live their lives. And that's what HelpAround is all about: patient peer support and forming connections for the mobile age.
Real connections in the real world produce genuine tears. And genuine tears were shed by all those who heard HelpAround CEO and co-founder (with Shlomi Aflalo) speak at Jerusalem's TedMed events. He told us how in the U.S., land of the free and the insurance-free, a pregnant woman who uses the app, went online saying she needed measurement strips for her blood sugar level monitor. Someone else, also diabetic, immediately wrote "I have extras at home. Sending them your way, special delivery. You'll have them in two days. Two packs. Tell me if you need more."