A collaborative research project bringing together four separate studies by researchers at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) in partnership with Qatar Foundation and several institutions in the United States, has led to the development of innovative, wearable devices which could enhance the prevention, management, and treatment of diabetic foot ulcers.
The studies, completed over a ten year period, won the Best Research Project Award at Qatar Foundation‚Äôs Annual Research Conference earlier this year.¬†
HMC's podiatry clinics treat thousands of patients with diabetes each year, with nearly 15,000 diabetes-related appointments in 2017 alone. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that around 23% of Qatar‚Äôs population has diabetes.
‚ÄúBetween 10 and 20% of people with diabetes will develop a foot ulcer at some point in their life,‚ÄĚ explained Dr Talal Khader Talal, head of Podiatric Services at HMC and a lead author of the studies.
‚ÄúPeople with diabetes are especially vulnerable to foot ulcers as their blood sugar levels are often high and can fluctuate. This can inhibit the skin‚Äôs ability to repair itself due to nerve damage. Due to a condition called peripheral diabetic neuropathy, many diabetics have reduced nerve function and sensation in their feet, meaning they may be unaware of cuts, damage, and ulcers on their feet until they become severe,‚ÄĚ added Dr Talal.¬†
One of the research studies led to the development of a specialist ‚Äėsmart sock‚Äô which enables clinical teams to monitor the temperature, pressure, and joint angles of a patient‚Äôs feet via fibre optic sensors. The information is sent automatically to a specialised device and can be viewed by both the patient and their doctor.¬†
‚ÄúBy monitoring this information via the ‚Äėsmart sock‚Äô, we are able to predict when a patient may be most vulnerable to the development of a foot ulcer. We are then able to help the patient change their behaviour and minimise this risk,‚ÄĚ said Dr Talal.¬†
In another of the studies, the researchers designed a specialist shirt capable of monitoring patients‚Äô activity. Physical activity is an important component of managing diabetes but it can be challenging to get the right balance; high levels of activity can cause stress and pressure on the feet, while low activity levels may increase the risk of foot ulcers.¬†
The final study looked at the effect of sensor-based interactive balance training. Due to the loss of feeling in their feet, some patients with diabetes experience mobility issues and lose confidence. The interactive balance training used sensors and a computer-based avatar which navigated obstacles.¬†
‚ÄúThough the devices developed are still undergoing further investigation, our initial research findings indicate that they could become very valuable tools in the future and boost our ability to prevent, manage, and treat diabetic foot ulcers,‚ÄĚ added Dr Talal.