One Sunday last month, more than 60 patients, students, medical professionals and design thinkers gathered on the Stanford campus to brainstorm ideas for gadgets and services tailored to the unique needs of diabetes patients.
The effort, called Disrupt Diabetes, was created and spearheaded by two graduating Stanford seniors — best friends and aspiring doctors who believe that innovations for people with diabetes should bubble up from patients’ daily experiences and priorities.
It all started with a discussion last spring, during their junior year.
Divya Gopisetty and Urvi Gupta both had worked with diabetes patients, and admired the knowledge, self-reliance and resilience they’d observed.
But after attending conferences and working on medical or design projects, both worried that those patients weren’t getting enough real opportunities to innovate. The patients’ voices, they found, would be solicited, but others would do the work of designing change for their lives.
“We were very frustrated by different things we had seen or heard about,” Gupta, 21, said. “Which came back to this whole, Why isn’t everyone included in these conversations? And why isn’t everyone included equally in these conversations?"
Both students feel strongly about the value of the one-on-one connection between patients and healers.
For Gopisetty, it’s personal. She has a family member with diabetes and was impressed by her experiences with a diabetes physician.
Gopisetty, 22, said the doctor offered “that ideal empathy.”
“It was a combination of listening, but more than listening, wanting to understand, and then knowing exactly what to say to give [guidance]," she said.
Gupta, who said she has always wanted to be a physician, grappled with warnings that she’d lose her empathy in that profession and struggled with recommendations that she pursue a different career in health care.
“Both of us weren’t satisfied with that,” Gupta said. “We don’t want to lose that human aspect.”
Their initial conversation about empowering diabetes patients soon evolved into serious planning for a project. They sought out mentors from Stanford, the diaTribe Foundation and IDEO, and eventually settled on a team model. They recruited participants with help from their mentors and through other avenues, such as Twitter. They then matched up a patient (who they deemed the “powerhouse”), with a student and designer to talk together each week for three months, shaping the discussions with conversation-starters supplied by Gopisetty and Gupta.
From there, each team would zero in on an unmet need, and at the concluding Sunday conference, each team would be joined by a medical expert and an industry specialist to develop a potential solution.
“People would say, ‘What do you see these teams coming up with’,” Gupta said, “and we’d say, ‘We don’t know because the whole idea is that we don’t know’.”
Patient Paul Fernandes said he got involved because he was interested in lessening the role of diabetes in his life. A 60-year-old electrical engineer from Pleasanton, Fernandes was surprised by the intimacy and frankness of the team’s weekly conversations.
“I don’t typically share this kind of information with anybody,” he said. “I felt that they were really amazing in terms of listening to me and asking questions, and I could tell that they were engaged.”
By late May, each team had identified their unmet need — issues ranging from calculating the nutritional content of homemade food to tapping into a support network to negotiating their identity with diabetes without allowing the condition to take over.
At the Sunday conference, each team — most meeting in person for the first time — developed a solution. A panel of judges, including Bruce Buckingham, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, chose three winners: a personalized digital dietician that uses fitness, GPS and other data to customize meal plans; and two similar projects that use a wearable device to alert a patient and others they select to important glucose level information through subtle vibrations. Winners received $500 toward developing their solution, along with mentorship and other opportunities.
Buckingham said he was impressed with the quality of the projects and with the Disrupt Diabetes effort as a whole: “I was totally blown away by what they were able to accomplish,” he said.
The conference ended with a standing ovation for Gopisetty and Gupta. As they contemplate their futures beyond Stanford — bridge years involving work at a diabetes patient advocacy organization for Gopisetty and a conservation photography project in South Africa for Gupta — they are hoping to continue Disrupt Diabetes in some way.
“I felt like this is the beginning of something new, and the creation of a new community and a new movement, rather than just something they came to, they did, and then they left,” Gupta said. “That’s what we hoped for. But it surprised us that that’s exactly how it went.”
Photo of Urvi Gupta and Divya Gopisetty by Zoe Heineman