Helping patients manage diabetes during pandemic

The Chatbot will help diabetics to manage their diabetes and provide information on how to prevent Covid-19 infections.

Diabetes is a pressing health issue in South Africa, and one in every four South Africans over the age of 45 is believed to have the disease.

People with diabetes are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 – not only are they more likely to develop complications and die from Covid-19, but support services meant to help manage their diabetes, such as support-group meetings and counselling sessions, have also been interrupted.

Health-care specialists at Stellenbosch University (SU) have recently launched a WhatsApp-based chatbot to help patients with diabetes effectively navigate risks associated with diabetes and Covid-19 from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

The GREAT4Diabetes chatbot is a free service via WhatsApp that sends automated messages that provide educational information to help people with diabetes avoid Covid-19 infection, and to self-manage their diabetes.

“During the pandemic, people with diabetes are not attending support groups or clinics as before and are not getting information or support with self-care. We have been looking for alternative ways of helping people to improve the control of their diabetes and stay safe at the same time. The chatbot is intended to do this job,” says Dr Darcelle Schouw of the Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

Dr Schouw is one of the lead developers on the GREAT4Diabetes project, which is a collaborative project between the FMHS, the Western Cape Department of Health’s Metro Health Services and Aviro, a digital health design company.

“This is a solution for a low-resource setting. We know cellphone coverage is good in poorer communities and that people can generally afford to pay for small amounts of data. These messages are sent in small audio files using minimal amounts of data, and is a feasible solution to providing support for the self-management of diabetes,” explains Dr Schouw.

There are 16 evidence-based audio messages offering patients guidance on avoiding Covid-19 infection, healthy eating habits, controlling blood sugar levels, and more. All messages are between three and four minutes long, and are available in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.

The service is activated by sending the message ‘Hi’ to a designated WhatsApp number, which will then guide participants through the registration process. They will then automatically receive an audio message every day for 16 days.

If this project is successful, Dr Schouw foresees that this kind of WhatsApp chatbot could be expanded for use in helping to manage other chronic diseases, not just in the Western Cape, but across the rest if South Africa.

People who want to sign up to receive messages to help them manage their diabetes can save the number 087 240 5094 to their phone, and send a message “Hi” via WhatsApp to subscribe. The service is free of charge and available to anyone with type 2 diabetes.