This week’s column was, in a sense, written in blood. It’s a review of a new consumer medical device, and to test it, I had to prick my fingertips several times a day to produce a droplet of blood that the gadget could analyze.
The product, called the Contour USB, is an interesting new computer-savvy blood-glucose test meter for diabetics, made by the big pharmaceutical company, Bayer. As a diabetic myself, I’ve been using a more traditional version of such a meter to test my blood several times daily for years. So do millions of others.
What makes the $75 Bayer Contour USB different from typical meters is that it looks and works like a common USB thumb drive, so it was born to integrate with personal computers. It plugs right into a PC or Mac without the need for any cables, and contains—built right in—software you can run on your computer for analyzing your test results. That’s helpful for both diabetics and their doctors, who need to understand the trends in the amount of glucose in the blood to make decisions on medication, diet and exercise.
After testing the Contour USB for five days, I found it worked pretty well and consider it a promising step in diabetes care. More information is at bayercontourusb.com, and the meter can be purchased at the Web site of the drug chain Walgreens and at drugstore.com.
But I am neither a doctor nor a diabetes expert, and I am not advising anyone to switch his or her meter without first consulting a medical professional.
The Contour USB is a compact, rectangular device with a USB connector on one end and a slot for glucose test strips, which collect the blood from the droplet, on the other. The face of the device has a color screen and three buttons that allow you to navigate simple menus.
Loaded inside is a software program called Glucofacts Deluxe that runs on either a Windows PC or Macintosh once you pop the meter into a USB port. It launches directly from the meter’s internal memory, which also contains your test results plus free space for anything else you wish to store on it.
The software reads the glucose results from the meter, and displays them in various logs, charts and graphs, which can be printed out or saved as a file on the computer. The user can provide the printouts to the doctor or email the files containing the data.
This mating of a glucose meter and a computer isn’t a new idea. Many brands of meters can be used with computer programs via extra-cost cables. But because the Bayer device builds in both the USB connector and the software, it makes this process easier than it has typically been. (Another new meter, called Myglucometer, is on the same path. It uses Bluetooth wireless technology to beam results to a PC.)
In my tests, the Contour USB proved quick and easy to use. When you’re actually doing the blood testing, it works pretty much like any other meter, and a computer isn’t involved. The meter’s color screen does, by default, ask you to designate whether the reading was taken before or after a meal, an extra step that can make the results more meaningful. But this feature can be turned off. And there’s an option that allows you to add a canned note, like “Sick,” or “Stress,” to any reading.
The real payoff comes when you plug the meter into a computer and launch the software, which helps you see the trends in your glucose levels over time. For instance, it can plot in various ways how often you stayed in a target zone and when you deviated. I tested this on Windows and Macintosh computers, and it worked. But there were some downsides.
For one thing, to launch the Glucofacts Deluxe software on your computer, you have to click on an obscure-sounding file name. It’s supposed to run automatically in Windows, but I never could get it to do that.
Also, on Windows, the software required me twice to install a new component. And the program is incompatible with Apple’s latest operating system, Snow Leopard. Bayer says it is working on solving the problem.
Another feature some may see as a downside is that the meter’s sealed battery can’t be replaced. But the company sees the freedom from buying batteries as an advantage for heavy users, and claims that even a one-minute recharge session will allow for several tests.
My biggest disappointment with the Contour USB was that it doesn’t provide any way to upload your results to an online repository, where you and your doctor might view them. And the new meter doesn’t tie in with online medical portals from companies such as Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT). Bayer says it plans an online component for the Contour USB.
Despite these flaws, I consider the Bayer Contour USB to be a welcome move toward integrating home testing with the digital world.