When I began working in diabetes, the first blood glucose meter had just been released. It required a large drop of blood, timing with a watch,and rinsing with a solution for a prescribed number of seconds, before drying with a specific type of cloth. If memory serves, it took 3-4 minutes to get a result. Despite what seems unbelievably burdensome now, this was an exciting innovation for people with diabetes and began the race toward the rapid results we expect today.

Today, we have sensors that provide readouts of interstitial glucose levels 24/7, and, hopefully, technology is on the cusp of an integrated pump/sensor that would automate the process of delivering insulin. Until that day arrives,we must be content with the various gadgets and gizmos that make the burden of caring for diabetes a little easier.

My colleagues and patients have been gracious in allowing me to pick their brains to assemble the material for this article. I am certain there are other handy items that are not included. The gadgets I've chosen to include are organized into categories below. The patient information page that accompanies this article (p. 73)provides manufacturer websites for additional information.

Pen devices and needles

Although syringes and vials still work, many people prefer using pen injection devices to deliver insulin or other injected medications. Pens are convenient and portable. They do not require refrigeration for specified amounts of time, and they making dosing easy.

Pens are safer than syringes for people with visual limitations or motor/sensory problems with their hands. With pen devices, the actual dose can be counted off with the clicks as the dose is dialed. In Europe, pens are the standard; in the United States, insurers may not cover their cost unless a patient's visual or motor impairments are documented.

Disposable pens. Pens come in two types: disposable and refillable. Disposable pens hold 300 units insulin and are simply thrown away when empty. Refillable pens have a prefilled disposable cartridge that is replaced when empty or past its use or expiration date.

The insulins available in disposable pens are:

  • Aspart (Novolog), detemir (Levemir), and a 70%-30% mix of aspart protamine suspension and aspart (Novolog Mix 70/30) in a device called the FlexPen from Novo Nordisk

  • Insulin isophane (Novolin N), regular insulin (Novolin R), and a 70%-30%blend of insulin isophane and regular insulin (Novolin 70/30) in a device called the Innolet by Novo Nordisk. The Innolet device is distinctive in its“egg timer” appearance and use(Figure 1), which makes dialing doses easier for people with motor problems. It is not available for analog insulin products.

  • Glargine (Lantus) in a device called the SoloStar by sanofi-aventis(Figure 2). Glulisine (Apidra)is expected to be available in a similar device this year.

  • Lispro (Humalog), insulin isophane (Humulin N), a 75%-25% mix of lispro and lispro protamine (Humalog Mix 75/25), a 70%-30% mix of insulin isophane and regular (Humulin 70/30), and a 50% lispro 50% lispro protamine (Humalog Mix 50/50) are available in pens made by Eli Lilly and Co.

  • A new device, the Humalog KwikPen(Figure 3), is also now available with lispro (Humalog), a 75%-25% mix of insulin lispro and insulin lispro protamine (Humalog Mix 75/25), and a 50%-50% mixture of lispro and lispro protamine (Humalog Mix 50/50).

Exenatide (Byetta) is only available in a disposable pen device that is identical in operation to the original Eli Lilly insulin pens. It comes in two dose strengths: 5 or 10 μg. Each pen contains a 1-month supply (60 injections). Exenatide is not available in a vial.

Pramlintide (Symlin) is newly available in two disposable pen devices, one delivering fixed doses of 15, 30, 45, or 60 μg and the other delivering fixed doses of 60 or 120 μg. Each pen contains a 1-month supply (90 injections). Pramlintide is also available in a 5-ml vial.

Refillable pens. Refillable pens are designed to hold a disposable cartridge that is replaced when empty. The insulins available in refillable pens are:

  • Aspart in a cartridge to fit the Novopen 3 by Novo Nordisk. A device called Novopen Jr. also accepts these cartridges and will deliver insulin in half-unit increments.

  • Cartridges of lispro will fit in a device called the HumaPen Memoir by Lilly.

  • The company's HumaPen Luxura HD (Figure 4) also accepts lispro cartridges and delivers 1-30 units insulin in half-unit increments.

  • Autopen by Owen Mumford offers one model that accepts lispro cartridges and another pen for glargine and glulisine cartridges.

  • OptiClik pens by sanofi-aventis accept cartridges of glargine and glulisine.

Needles. Pen needles are required for all of the pen devices; there are at least 10 manufacturers of pen needles in the United States. Most have needles available from 29 to 32 gauge and in lengths of 3/16, 5/16, and 1/2 inch. The 3/16-inch needles are designed for pediatric use. Use in adults can result in intradermal rather than subcutaneous administration of insulin. Novofine Autocover pen needles (30 gauge, 1/3 inch)hide the needle from view, which may help needle-phobic people administer injections.

Novo Nordisk needles do not fit the OptiClik pens, but other brands of pens and needles are interchangeable.

Pens should not be stored with the needles attached because this will cause medication to leak out and introduce air and possibly bacteria into the cartridge. Becton Dickinson makes a handy zippered pen needle carrying case that has a key ring attachment that will hold four or five needles(Figure 5).

Insulin syringes and accessories

Syringes remain the most common delivery device for insulin. They come in three sizes, holding 30, 50, or 100 units. To increase accuracy, the smallest size syringe that will accommodate the needed dose should be used.

Several brands of 30-unit syringes come with 1-unit or 1/2-unit markings. Of the 100-unit syringes, some are marked in 1-unit increments; others have 2-unit increment markings. Switching syringe brands could cause confusion if syringe markings differ.

Needle gauge refers to the diameter of the actual needle. Syringe needs are available in 28, 29, 30, and 31 gauge, and the larger the number, the smaller the diameter of the needle. A smaller diameter increases the risk of bending or breaking the needle during injection preparation or administration. Pramlintide can be delivered with insulin syringes, but because pramlintide vials have a thick rubber cap, the larger diameter 29-gauge needles are recommended for this use.

Needles. Syringe needles come in several lengths. One-half-inch needles are traditional, but many now come in lengths of 5/16 inch. Patients must take care to ensure that injections are not accidentally given intradermally by angling the syringe when using a short needle.

Accessories and enhancements. Magnifiers are available to increase the accuracy of insulin dosing when using syringes. The Becton Dickinson Magniguide works as a 1.7 × magnifier and an insulin guide. The syringe fits into a groove, and the insulin vial snaps on to the top of the magnifier, allowing the patient to hold the magnifier, syringe, and vial in one hand while using the other to draw the dose(Figure 6). It fits all sizes of insulin syringe. Similarly, the EZY Dose syringe magnifier clamps onto the syringe and works with 50- and 100-unit syringes(Figure 7). PIC-indolor insumed syringes come with a clip-on magnifying lens in each box of 30 syringes. The lens attaches to the syringe barrel for use while filling.

Other syringe accessories include carrying cases to transport a filled syringe, needle clips for separating the needles from the body of the syringe,and cooler cases to keep medication cool in hot weather. Sharps containers for used needles and lancets are available with a mail-in program for safe disposal. The Safe Shot syringe holder premarks the point at which the plunger will stop for a specific dose (Figure 8).

The I-Port is an infusion-assistance device that is a flexible cannula placed subcutaneously much like an insulin pump infusion set. It allows multiple injections into the device over a 3-day period, avoiding multiple needle sticks. This is particularly helpful for those who take both mealtime pramlintide and insulin, avoiding six needle sticks a day by using this device. We advise giving basal insulin injections elsewhere (not through the I-port) to avoid a subcutaneous depot(Figure 9).

Automatic insulin injectors allow individuals with needle phobias to inject via a spring-loaded device so that they do not have to manually insert the needle through their skin. The Becton Dickinson automatic injector holds a filled syringe and inserts the needle into the skin much like a lancet device inserts a lancet. Manually pushing down the plunger is required to deliver the insulin. It will accommodate all insulin syringe sizes, but the needle depth on the 30-unit syringe is reduced to 3/8 inch(Figure 10).

Owen Mumford's Autoject inserts the needle and delivers the dose at the push of a single button mounted on the side of the device. Injections do not require depressing the plunger. This is particularly helpful for people who have the use of only one hand (Figure 11).

The NovoPen Penmate fits over the Novopen 3 or Novopen Jr. to inject the hidden needle with the touch of a button. The plunger must be pushed down manually.

Jet injectors deliver insulin with high pressure through the skin without needles. These devices require regular cleaning to avoid bacterial contamination, are not totally painless, and can cause bruising. The cost may not be covered by insurance. Dose adjustments may be required because medication delivered through this method may be absorbed more rapidly.

Color-coded insulin vial caps are available to assist in identifying different types of insulin or times of doses(Figure 12).

Insulin pumps

Pumps are improving rapidly and becoming easier to use. The latest leap in technology is the Omnipod, a pump that requires no separate tubing or infusion set (Figure 13).The pod is filled with insulin and attached to the site with adhesive, and its cannula automatically inserts when programmed on the handheld personal digital assistant. At the end of 2 or 3 days, the pod is peeled off and a new one is inserted. Other pump companies have “patch pumps” in development.

Enhancements. A variety of enhancements are now available on pumps, including carbohydrate databases, attached glucose monitors,monitors that communicate blood glucose test results to the pump, dose calculators, and color liquid crystal display screens. Hopefully, some company will soon make a pump with a display large enough for those with visual impairments, but one does not exist today. Some people use cell phone magnifiers to enlarge the text on their pump screens. This is a rudimentary fix that is of little assistance to most individuals who have significant visual impairments.

Blood glucose meters

Meters have become smaller; they now require less blood, allowing for alternate site testing; and they are increasing moving to test strips that do not require coding. Despite misleading television commercials, all meters still require a small sample of blood, although it does not always have to come from the fingertip.

One new product in this category is the Prodigy Autocode, a small, portable talking meter, which I have used successfully with visually impaired people.

And in the “why-didn't-I-think-of-that” category is the glucophone, a cell phone that doubles as a meter and has the ability to transmit data to a database or another cell phone(Figure 14). Text, test, and talk; teens should love that! This product is currently in testing, and an exact release date has not yet been announced.

Glucose sensors

Sensors are the latest gadgets to create excitement in the diabetes world(Figure 15). Basically, they detect electrical charges in the interstitial fluid and convert these charges into meaningful glucose numbers with the assistance of calibrations performed through traditional capillary blood glucose testing. Sensors are worn under the skin, much like an insulin pump cannula, and stay in place for several days. The signals are transmitted to an insulin pump (Medtronic-Minimed brand)or to a handheld receiver (Dexcom or Medtronic-Minimed brands) that produces a graph of recent glucose trends on the receiver screen. These devices have the ability to sound an alarm when sensor signals reach set levels, for example,65 and 250 mg/dl, which could help those with hypoglycemia unawareness rest easier at night.

Much like the first-generation meter technology of the past, this technology is probably still in its infancy and will rapidly improve in convenience and accuracy. Presently, high cost and limited insurance reimbursement remain issues for many people who would like to use this technology.

Lancing devices

Lancing devices have improved, with most now allowing adjustment of depth settings and accommodation of a variety of replacement lancets. Most lancets must be removed by hand when used, increasing the risk of accidental sticks. The LifeScan Penlet and UltraSoft, the Palco Prima, and Accu-Chek Softclix are exceptions that will eject old lancets hands-free. The Accu-chek Multiclix holds a cartridge of six lancets, decreasing the frequency of needed lancet changes.

Safety devices

Hypoglycemia treatments are essential for anyone taking medications that have the potential to cause hypoglycemia. A variety of gels and tablets are available that perform nicely to treat low blood glucose. Most of these compounds are dextrose, which is more rapidly absorbed into circulation,resulting in a quicker response. One of my favorites is the glucose tablet case, which attaches to a key ring, backpack, purse, or belt loop(Figure 16).

Pill carrying cases

A variety of pill sorters and carrying cases are available to aid in oral medication regimens. Some cases have an inner vial to provide additional protection from humidity and a key ring attachment to make them easier to find in a pocket or purse (Figure 17). Similar devices are available at most drugstores. Some fillable pill boxes have alarms and missed dose messages to help those who experience difficulty remembering to take their medicines(Figure 18). Watches are available that can be set to sound an alarm at medication times.

Wearable medical identification tags

These are essential safety items for people who take hypoglycemic agents or those with life-threatening allergies(Figure 19). Some options include charms for watchbands or existing jewelry, bracelets, dog tags, sports bands, bolo cords, necklaces, and rubber glow-in-the-dark shoe tags.

Carbohydrate counting and meal planning aids

A couple of resources make carbohydrate counting and insulin matching a little more convenient. The Calorie King Pocket Guide is a fairly complete reference for the carbohydrate content, calories, and fat content of many foods and popular restaurant offerings. It is updated annually to keep abreast of changing restaurant menus and new products on grocery store shelves.

The InsuCalc wheel will calculate mealtime insulin doses based on blood glucose level plus carbohydrate intake(Figure 20). Its use requires knowing the carbohydrate content of a meal, but it does eliminate the math related to determining the correct insulin dose. The wheel fits in most blood glucose meter cases and is available for a variety of carbohydrate-to-insulin ratios and correction-dose scales.

“Dotti's Restaurants A to Z” is a website that has menu items for more than 500 restaurants in the United States and Canada. Although it is designed to provide information about the calorie and fat content of restaurant fare, it includes carbohydrate content for most of the items listed.

Other helpful products

Baby spoons that change color to indicate when a food is too hot can also be used to ensure that bath water is not too hot for individuals with neuropathy (Figure 21). They are available in the baby aisle at most drug stores and grocery stores. A high-tech rubber duckie bath thermometer with an alarm warning for hot water is also available online to help those with visual impairments and compromised ability to sense heat (Figure 22).

Visual foot inspections can become more challenging with age or reduced physical mobility. Extendable mirrors are a terrific way to improve visibility of the plantar surface of the feet (Figure 23). Dual-sided mirrors showing regular and 2 ×magnification reflections are attached to a long handle, which telescopes for easy storage.

Learn More

To compare the features of a wide array of available devices, check the charts at www.DiabetesHealth.com/charts. The resource guide at www.diabetes.org/uedocuments/df-rg-new-products-0108.pdfis another helpful resource for new products.

So until the much-wished-for Easy Button for Diabetes becomes a reality,let's hope the gadgets and gizmos continue to improve and make living with diabetes just a little bit easier for our patients and their families.

Anne Brown, MSN, BC-ADM, BC-ANP, is a nurse practitioner at the Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Clinic, a staff member at the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center, and a faculty member of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn.