Medical technology to end social stigma

Victoria University of Wellington researchers are working towards a new status quo—where teenagers aren’t ashamed as they manage their diabetes.

necklace design
Fente: A jewellery-inspired design for measuring blood glucose levels

Research from Victoria’s School of Design and Faculty of Health is exploring how designers can better create medical technology that responds to the needs of teenagers with type 1 diabetes.

Design PhD student Gillian McCarthy, with support from Associate Professor Edgar Rodriguez from the School of Design and Dr Brian Robinson from the Faculty of Health, looked at the experience of teenagers managing diabetes and what the issues they faced in relation to the medical technology and devices they use.

“For example, a blood glucose meter is a critical part of managing diabetes, but many of the people we talked to found it drew unwanted attention,” says Gillian.

Interviews were conducted with females aged 13-24 with type 1 diabetes, which resulted in a list of user-requirements for teenagers using medical devices to self-manage their therapy.  

From these interviews, five design requirements were constructed: help to comfortably disclose and explain type 1 diabetes when appropriate; minimise or eliminate feelings of stigma or embarrassment while using medical technology; facilitate spontaneity and participation in everyday activities; communicate data and information to facilitate decision making; and facilitate a daily self-management routine that fits with lifestyle.

The requirements were then used to inform design experiments created by 28 research participants from Victoria’s undergraduate Industrial Design programme.

The students created several prototypes—including a phone case, jewellery, bike attachment and watch, all of which responded to user requirements of monitoring blood glucose.

“We’re exploring the positive social impacts that medical devices can have, as well as reducing the negative impacts,” says Gillian.

“If we make something beautiful—like a necklace—can it be something people will want to have, rather than a device that they are ashamed to use?

“The feedback we got from the teenagers was positive. We weren’t looking to create finished medical devices to go to market, but wanted to promote discussion and show the importance of respecting their psychosocial requirements.”

The research was published this month in a special edition of The Design Journal for the European Academy of Design’s ‘Design for Next’ conference in Rome where Gillian presented her research in April this year.  

“This research is a fantastic example of one of the big problems we address in the Smart Interactions cluster—how to engage people with their medical therapies,” says Associate Professor Rodriguez.

The Smart Interactions team is a research cluster at Victoria’s School of Design that investigates how to provide better healthcare and safety through smart interactions that better reflect human needs and desires.