Looking Back Through 2022 (What You May Have Missed)

I ended up writing a post last year recapping 2021, in part because I felt like I did hardly anything – which wasn’t true. In part, that was based on my body having a number of things going on that I didn’t know at the time. I figured those out in 2022 which made 2022 hard and also provided me with a sense of accomplishment as I tackled some of these new challenges.

For 2022, I have a very different feeling looking back on the entire year, which makes me so happy because it was night and day (different) compared to this time last year.

One major example? Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency.

I started taking enzymes (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, known as PERT) in early January. And they clearly worked, hooray!

I quickly realized that like insulin, PERT dosing needed to be based on the contents of my meals. I figured out how to effectively titrate for each meal and within a month or two was reliably dosing effectively with everything I was eating and drinking. And, I was writing and sharing my knowledge with others – you can see many of the posts I wrote collected at DIYPS.org/EPI.

I also designed and built an open source web calculator to help others figure out their ratios of lipase and fat and protease and protein to help them improve their dosing.

I even published a peer-reviewed journal article about EPI – submitted within 4 months of confirming that I had it! You can read that paper here with an analysis of glucose data from both before and after starting PERT. It’s a really neat example that I hope will pave the way for answering many questions we all have about how particular medications possibly affect glucose levels (instead of simply being warned that they “may cause hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia” which is vague and unhelpful.)

I also had my eyes opened to having another chronic disease that has very, very expensive medication with no generic medication option available (and OTCs may or may not work well). Here’s some of the math I did on the cost of living with EPI and diabetes (and celiac and Graves) for a year, in case you missed it.

Another other challenge+success was running (again), but with a 6 week forced break (ha) because I massively broke a toe in July 2022.

That was physically painful and frustrating for delaying my ultramarathon training.

I had been successfully figuring out how to run and fuel with enzymes for EPI; I even built a DIY macronutrient tracker and shared a template so others can use it. I ran a 50k with a river crossing in early June and was on track to target my 100 mile run in early fall.

However with the broken toe, I took the time off needed and carefully built back up, put a lot of planning into it, and made my attempt in late October instead.

I succeeded in running ~82 miles in ~25 hours, all in one go!

I am immensely proud of that run for so many reasons, some of which are general pride at the accomplishment and others are specific, including:

  • Doing something I didn’t think I could do which is running all day and all night without stopping
  • Doing this as a solo or “DIY” self-organized ultra
  • Eating every 30 minutes like clockwork, consuming enzymes (more than 92 pills!), which means 50 snacks consumed. No GI issues, either, which is remarkable even for an ultrarunner without EPI!
  • Generally figuring out all the plans and logistics needed to be able to handle such a run, especially when dealing with type 1 diabetes, celiac, EPI, and Graves
  • Not causing any injuries, and in fact recovering remarkably fast which shows how effective my training and ‘race’ strategy were.

On top of this all, I achieved my biggest-ever running year, with more than 1,333 miles run this year. This is 300+ more than my previous best from last year which was the first time I crossed 1,000 miles in a year.

Professionally, I did quite a lot of miscellaneous writing, research, and other activities.

I spent a lot of time doing research. I also peer reviewed more than 24 papers for academic journals. I was asked to join an editorial board for a journal. I served on 2 grant review committees/programs.

I also wrote a lot.

*by ton, I mean way more than the past couple of years combined. Some of that has been due to getting some energy back once I’ve fixed missing enzyme and mis-adjusted hormone levels in my body! I’m up to 40+ blog posts this year.

And personally, the punches felt like they kept coming, because this year we also found out that I have Graves’ disease, taking my chronic disease count up to 4. Argh. (T1D, celiac, EPI, and now Graves’, for those curious about my list.)

My experience with Graves’ has included symptoms of subclinical hyperthyroidism (although my T3 and T4 are in range), and I have chosen to try thyroid medication in order to manage the really bothersome Graves’-related eye symptoms. That’s been an ongoing process and the symptoms of this have been up and down a number of times as I went on medication, reduced medication levels, etc.

What I’ve learned from my experience with both EPI and Graves’ in the same year is that there are some huge gaps in medical knowledge around how these things actually work and how to use real-world data (whether patient-recorded data or wearable-tracked data) to help with diagnosis, treatment (including medication titration), etc. So the upside to this is I have quite a few new projects and articles coming to fruition to help tackle some of the gaps that I fell into or spotted this year.

And that’s why I’m feeling optimistic, and like I accomplished quite a bit more in 2022 than in 2021. Some of it is the satisfaction of knowing the core two reasons why the previous year felt so physically bad; hopefully no more unsolved mysteries or additional chronic diseases will pop up in the next few years. Yet some of it is also the satisfaction of solving problems and creating solutions that I’m uniquely poised, due to my past experiences and skillsets, to solve. That feels good, and it feels good as always to get to channel my experiences and expertise to try to create solutions with words or code or research to help other people.

More Tools To Help Diabetes Researchers and Other Researchers

A few years ago I made a big deal about a tool I had created, converting someone’s web tool into a command line tool to be able to take complex json data and convert it to csv. Years later, I (and thousands of others, it’s been downloaded 1600+ times!) am still using this tool because there’s nothing better that I’ve found when you have data that you don’t know the data structure for or the data structure varies across files.

I ended up creating a repository on Github to store it with details on running it, and have expanded it over the last (almost) six years as I and others have added additional tools. For example, it’s where Arsalan, one of my frequent collaborators, and I store open source code from some of our recent papers.

Recently, I added two more small scripts. This was motivated to help researchers who have been successfully using the OpenAPS Data Commons and want to update their dataset with a later version of the data. Chances are, they have cleaned and worked with a previous version of the dataset, and instead of having to re-clean all of the data all over again, this set of scripts should help narrow down what the “new” data is that needs to be pulled out, cleaned, and appended to a previously cleaned dataset.

You can check out the full tool repository here (it has several other scripts in addition to the ones mentioned above). The latest are two python scripts that checks the content of an existing folder and lists out the memberID and filenames for each. This is useful to run on an existing, already-cleaned dataset to see what you currently have. It can also be run on the latest/newest/bigger dataset available. Then, the second script can be run to compare the memberIDs and file names in the newer/biggest/larger dataset against the previously cleaned/smaller/older dataset. Those that “match” already exist in the version of the dataset they have; they don’t need to be pulled again. The others don’t exist in the current dataset, and can be popped into a script to pull out just those data files to then be cleaned and appended to the existing dataset.

As a heads up specifically for those working with the OpenAPS Data Commons, it is best practice to name/describe the version of the dataset via the size. For example, you might be working with the n=88 or n=122 version of the dataset. If you used the above method, you would then describe it along the lines of taking and cleaning the n=122 version; selecting new files available from the n=183 version and appending them to the n=122 version; and the resulting dataset is n=(122+number of new files used).

Folks who access the n=183 version of the dataset and haven’t previously used a smaller version of the dataset can reference using the n=183 and clarifying how many files they ended up using, e.g. describing that they followed X method to clean the data starting from the n=183 version and their resulting dataset is n=166, for example.

It is important to clarify which version and size of the dataset is being used.

PS – this method works on other data file types, too! You’d change the variable/column header names in the script to update this for other cases.

We Have Changed the Standards of Care for People With Diabetes

We’ve helped change the standard of care for people with diabetes, with open source automated insulin delivery.

I get citation alerts sometimes when my previous research papers or articles are cited. For the last few years, I get notifications when new consensus guidelines or research comes out that reference or include mention of open source automated insulin delivery (AID). At this time of year, the ADA Standards of Care is released for the following year, and I find out usually via these citation alerts.

Why?

This year, in 2023, there’s a section on open source automated insulin delivery!

A screenshot of the 2023 ADA Standards of Care section under Diabetes Technology (7) that lists DIY closed looping, meaning open source automated insulin delivery

But did you know, that’s not really new? Here’s what the 2022 version said:

A screenshot of the 2022 ADA Standards of Care section under Diabetes Technology (7) that lists DIY closed looping, meaning open source automated insulin delivery

And 2021 also included…

A screenshot of the 2021 ADA Standards of Care section under Diabetes Technology (7) that lists DIY closed looping, meaning open source automated insulin delivery

And 2020? Yup, it was there, too.

A screenshot of the 2020 ADA Standards of Care section under Diabetes Technology (7) that lists DIY closed looping, meaning open source automated insulin delivery

All the way back to 2019!

A screenshot of the 2019 ADA Standards of Care under Diabetes Technology (7) that lists DIY closed looping, meaning open source automated insulin delivery

If you read them in chronological order, you can see quite a shift.

In 2019, it was a single sentence noting their existence under a sub-heading of “Future Systems” under AID. In 2020, the content graduated to a full paragraph at the end of the AID section (that year just called “sensor-augmented pumps”). In 2021, it was the same paragraph under the AID section heading. 2022 was the year it graduated to having its own heading calling it out, with a specific evidence based recommendation! 2023 is basically the same as 2022.

So what does it say?

It points out patients are using open source AID (which they highlight as do-it-yourself closed loop systems). It sort of incorrectly suggests healthcare professionals can’t prescribe these systems (they can, actually – providers can prescribe all kinds of things that are off-label – there’s just not much point of a “prescription” unless it’s needed for a person’s elementary school (or similar) who has a policy to only support “prescribed” devices).

And then, most importantly, it points out that regardless, healthcare providers should assist in diabetes management and support patient choice to ensure the safety of people with diabetes. YAY!

“…it is crucial to keep people with diabetes safe if they are using these methods for automated insulin delivery. Part of this entails ensuring people have a backup plan in case of pump failure. Additionally, in most DIY systems, insulin doses are adjusted based on the pump settings for basal rates, carbohydrate ratios, correction doses, and insulin activity. Therefore, these settings can be evaluated and modified based on the individual’s insulin requirements.”

You’ll notice they call out having a backup plan in case of pump failure.

Well, yeah.

That should be true of *any* AID system or standalone insulin pump. This highlights that the needs of people using open source AID in terms of healthcare support are not that different from people choosing other types of diabetes therapies and technologies.

It is really meaningful that they are specifically calling out supporting people living with diabetes. Regardless of technology choices, people with diabetes should be supported by their healthcare providers. Full stop. This is highlighted and increasingly emphasized, thanks to the movement of individuals using open source automated insulin delivery. But the benefits of this is not limited to those of us using open source automated insulin delivery; this spills over and expands to people using different types of BG meters, CGM, insulin pumps, insulin pens, syringes, etc.

No matter their choice of tools or technologies, people with diabetes SHOULD be supported in THEIR choices. Not choices limited by healthcare providers, who might only suggest specific tools that they (healthcare providers) have been trained on or are familiar with – but the choices of the patient.

In future years, I expect the ADA Standard of Care for 2024 and beyond to evolve, in respect to the section on open source automated insulin delivery.

The evidence grading should increase from “E” (which stands for “Expert consensus or clinical experience”), because there is now a full randomized control trial in the New England Journal of Medicine on open source automated insulin delivery, in addition to the continuation results (24 weeks following the RCT; 48 full weeks of data) accepted for publication (presented at EASD 2022), and a myriad of other studies ranging from retrospective to prospective trials. The evidence is out there, so I expect that this evidence grading and the text of the recommendation text will evolve accordingly to catch up to the evidence that exists. (The standards of care are based on literature available up to the middle of the previous year; much of the things I’ve cited above came out in later 2022, so it matches the methodology to not be included until the following year; these newest articles should be scooped up by searches up to July 2023 for the 2024 edition.)

In the meantime, I wish more people with diabetes were aware of the Standards of Care and could use them in discussion with providers who may not be as happy with their choices. (That’s part of the reason I wrote this post!)

I also wish we patients didn’t have to be aware of this and don’t have to argue our cases for support of our choices from healthcare providers.

But hopefully over time, this paradigm of supporting patient choice will continue to grow in the culture of healthcare providers and truly become the standard of care for everyone, without any personal advocacy required.

Did you know? We helped change the standards of care for people living with diabetes. By Dana M. Lewis from DIYPS.org

New Chapter: Personalizing Research: Involving, Inviting, and Engaging Patient Researchers

TLDR: A new chapter I wrote, invited for a book on Personal Health Informatics, is out! You can read a summary below describing my chapter. You can also find a link to a full pre-print (a copy of my submitted, unedited version) of the article (as well as author copies of all of my articles) on my research page.

In November 2020 I was invited to submit a proposal for a chapter for a pending book on personal health informatics. Like journal articles, you can be invited to submit for a book chapter as part of a larger book topic.

Knowing that book chapters take a long time to come out, I carefully thought about the topic of my article and whether I could write something that would be relevant approximately a year after I wrote it.

The context of the book was:

“high-quality scholarly work that seeks to provide clarity, consistency, and reproducibility, with a shared view of the status-quo of consumer and pervasive health informatics and its relevance to precision medicine and healthcare applications and system design. The book will offer a snapshot of this emerging field, supported by the methodological, practical, and ethical perspectives from researchers and practitioners in the field. In addition to being a research reader, this book will provide pragmatic insights for practitioners in designing, implementing, and evaluating personal health informatics in the healthcare settings.”

They also wanted to include patient perspectives, which is part of the reason I was invited to submit a proposal for a chapter, and asked if I could write about citizen science from the patient perspective.

I decided to write more broadly about patient perspectives in research, and since the audience of this book is likely to be academic researchers and practitioners already in the field, seek to provide some ideas and input as to how they could think about practically inviting and engaging patient partners in research, as well as supporting the burgeoning field of patient researchers who lead their own research.

I submitted my draft article in April 2021; received feedback and submitted the revision in August 2021; and the book was due to be published in “spring 2022”.

::crickets::

The book is now out in November 2022, hooray! It is called Personal Health Informatics and you can find it online here.

Abstract from my chapter:

There are many benefits to engaging and involving patients in traditional, researcher-led research, ranging from improved recruitment and increased enrollment to accelerating and facilitating the implementation of research outcomes. Researchers, however, may not be aware of when and where they can involve patients (people with lived healthcare experience) in research or what the benefits may be of improving patient engagement in the research process or of expanding patient involvement to other research stages. This chapter seeks to highlight the benefits and opportunities of engaging patients in traditional research and provide practical suggestions for inviting or recruiting patients for participation in research, whether or not there is an established patient and public involvement (PPI) program. This includes tips for developing a productive working relationship and culture between researchers and the patients involved in research. There are also many patients themselves conducting research, and often without the benefits, resources, and opportunities made available to traditional researchers. Traditional researchers should identify and recognize researchers who have emerged from non-traditional paths who are driving and engaging in their own research, and provide support and resources where appropriate to foster further patient-driven research. This investment can lead to collaboration opportunities for additional highly relevant and effective research studies with traditional researchers in the future. This chapter provides examples of patient researchers and offers tools to support traditional researchers who want to support patient-led research efforts and improve their ability to successfully engage patient stakeholders in their own research.

Here are some of the highlights and recommendations from my chapter:

  • Invite patients to participate in research, and do it early.
  • Ask patients how they’d like to be involved in research.
  • Relationship building and culture setting is important. Address the power dynamics within your project and team.
  • Set expectations for everyone involved on the team.
  • Consider training and skill-building opportunities for patients who are partnering in research.
  • If you’re looking to support a patient who is already initiating or performing research, first ask: “How can I help?”. This article includes a list of suggestions of how you can help them.

This article also highlights many exceptional researchers who are patients and their work, including:

Note the chapter discusses explicitly how not everyone has a PhD or an MD; this is not a requisite to doing high-quality research!

The chapter concludes with “clinical pearls’’, which are four suggested tips to use in daily practice, and includes some suggested resources like the Opening Pathways Readiness Quiz. It also includes a suggestion of making a “To Don’t” list in collaboration with patient research partners.

The chapter also contains two review questions:

  1. Imagine that you have a research project where you would like to apply for funding, and the funder mandates that you have a patient involved in your research project. At what stage do you involve a patient in your project, and how do you do so?
  2. You are at a scientific conference and observe a patient giving a presentation about their own research or project. They’re not a traditional researcher – they don’t have a PhD or have a day job as a researcher. You want to approach them and offer your help with their research. What do you offer when you approach them?

To see the answers to these review questions, check out the article in full! :)

TLDR: A new chapter I wrote, invited for a book on Personal Health Informatics, is out! You can find a link to a full pre-print (a copy of my submitted, unedited version) of the article (as well as author copies of all of my articles) on my research page.

If you’d like to cite this in one of your articles, note that the DOI for the article is https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07696-1_17 and an example citation is:

Lewis, D. (2022). Personalizing Research: Involving, Inviting, and Engaging Patient Researchers. In: Hsueh, PY.S., Wetter, T., Zhu, X. (eds) Personal Health Informatics. Cognitive Informatics in Biomedicine and Healthcare. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07696-1_17

Excerpted tips from the book chapter "Personalizing Research: Involving, Inviting, and Engaging Patient Researchers" by Dana Lewis

Costs, Price and Calculations for Living With Diabetes and Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency and Celiac and Graves

Living with diabetes is expensive. However, the cost and price goes beyond the cost of insulin, which you may have heard about lately. In addition to insulin, you need tools and supplies to inject the insulin (e.g. syringes, insulin pens, or an insulin pump). Depending on those methods, you need additional supplies (e.g. pen needles for insulin pens, reservoirs and infusion sets for insulin pumps). You also need blood glucose monitoring supplies, whether that is meter and up to a dozen glucose test strips a day and/or a continuous glucose monitor which is made up of a disposable sensor and a reusable transmitter.

All those costs add up on a daily basis for people living with diabetes, even if you have health insurance.

Understanding the costs of living with chronic illness with health insurance in the US

Every year in the US we have “open enrollment” time when we opt-in or enroll into our choice of health insurance plan for the following year. I am lucky and have access to insurance through my husband’s employer, who covers part of the cost for him and me (as a spouse). We have a high-deductible (HSA-qualified) health plan, so our deductible (the amount we must pay before insurance begins to pay for a portion of the costs) is usually around $1,500-$2,500 USD for me. After that, I might pay either a fixed copay ($10 or $25 or similar) for a doctor’s visit, or a percentage (10% or 20%) while the insurance covers the rest of the cost. Then there is a fixed “out of pocket (OOP) max” cost for the year, which might be something like $3,000 USD total. Sometimes the OOP max is pretty close to the deductible, because we typically choose the ‘high deductible’ plan (with no monthly cost for the insurance plan) over a plan where we have a lower deductible but pay a monthly premium for the insurance.

That’s a very rough summary of how I see my health insurance. Everyone has different health insurers (the company providing the insurance) and different plans (the costs will be different based on whether it’s through a different employer or if it’s an individual plan).

So the costs to people with diabetes can vary quite a bit in the US, depending on whether you have insurance: there is variation in the monthly cost of the plan, the amount of the deductible, and the amount of the out of pocket max.

In order to choose my plan for the following year, I look at the total cost for the year of my health supplies and health care, then look at the plans. Usually, the high deductible plan “feels” more expensive because I might have to reach $2,500 before insurance kicks in; however, the out of pocket cap may only be $500 beyond that, so that I’m going to pay a maximum of $3,000 for the year in insurance-covered costs*. There are other types of plans that are lower deductible, such as insurance kicking in after a $250 deductible. That sounds better, right? Well, those plans come with a monthly cost (premium) of $250. So you need to factor that in ($250×12=$3,000) alongside the deductible and any costs up to the out of pocket max ($2,500). From this, you’d pay the $3,000 total yearly premium plus up to $2,500 OOP, or $5,500. Thus, even though it has a lower deductible and OOP, you’re in total paying much more ($5,500 vs $3,000) if you’re someone like me.

Why? Because I have >$3,000 of health supply costs every year.

This is why every few years (mostly after I forget what I learned the last time), I do the math on how much my supply costs to see if I’m still making the most cost-effective choices for me with my insurance plans.

I wanted to share this math methodology below, also because this year I have new variables, which are two new chronic diseases (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Graves) that add additional costs and healthcare needs and require me to want to re-check my math.

* Clarifying that previously and most years I pay out of pocket for minor, relatively low-cost health supplies like vitamins or tape to cover my CGM that I buy and do not get through insurance coverage, so my total costs are usually over that OOP max, but likely not by more than a few hundred dollars.

Note: Do not attempt to use this as an absolute cost of diabetes for anyone else. These numbers are based on my use cases in terms of volume of insulin, insurance coverage, etc. Ditto for trying to use the costs for EPI. Where relevant below, I provide rough estimates of my methodology so that another individual with diabetes or EPI/PEI could use similar methods to calculate their own rough costs, if they wished. However, this cannot be used to determine any average cost to people with diabetes more broadly, so don’t excerpt or cite this in those ways. This is purely n=1 math with conclusions that are unique to this n=1 (aka me) but with methods that can be extended for others.

I’ll cover my estimates for costs of diabetes, celiac, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI or PEI), and Graves’ disease below. This doesn’t account for visits (e.g. doctor’s appointments), lab tests, or other health costs such as x-rays for breaking bones, because those vary quite a bit year to year and aren’t guaranteed fixed costs. But the supplies I need for diabetes, EPI, etc are fixed costs, which I use to anchor my math. Given that they end up well above my OOP max, the then-variable amount of other costs (doctor’s appointments, lab work, etc) is minor in comparison and irrelevant regardless of how much it varies year to year.

The costs (for me) of daily living with diabetes

(You read the caveat note above, right? This is my math based on my volume of insulin, food intake, personal insulin sensitivity, etc. Lots of variables, all unique to me.)

To calculate the yearly costs of living with diabetes, I make a list of my diabetes supplies.

Primarily for me, those are:

  • Insulin
  • CGM sensors
  • CGM transmitter
  • Pump sites
  • Reservoirs

(Not included: meter/test strips or the cost of a pump or the cost of any hardware I’m using for my open source automated insulin delivery. I’ve not bought a new in-warranty pump in years, and that alone takes care of the OOP max on my insurance plan if I were to buy a pump that year. Anyway, the above list is really my recurring regular costs, but if you were purchasing a pump or on a subscription plan for a pump, you’d calculate that in as well).

First, I calculate the daily cost of insulin. I take the cost of a vial of my insulin and divide it by 1,000, because that’s how many units a vial of insulin has. Then I multiply that by the average number of units I use per day to get the cost per day of insulin, which for me is $4.36. (The yearly cost of insulin would be $1,592.)

Then, I calculate my CGM sensors. I take the total cost for a 3 month order of sensors and divide by the number of sensors; then divide by 10 days (because a sensor lasts about 10 days) to get the cost per day of a CGM sensor: about $11 per day. But, you also have to add in the cost of the re-usable transmitter. Again, factor the cost of a transmitter over the number of days it covers; for me it’s about $2 per day. In total, the cost per day of CGM is about $13 and the yearly cost of CGM is roughly $4,765.

Next is pump sites and reservoirs. You need both to go with your insulin pump: the pump site is the catheter site into your body and the tubing (this cumulatively gets replaced every few days), and the reservoir is disposable and is filled with insulin. The cost per day of pump sites and reservoirs is about $6 ($4.67 for a pump site and $1.17 for a reservoir) and the yearly cost of pump sites and reservoirs is $2,129.

If you add up these supplies (pump sites and reservoirs, CGM sensor and transmitter, insulin), the daily cost of diabetes for me is about $23. The yearly cost of diabetes for me is $8,486.

Give that $8,486 is well over the out of pocket max cost of $3,000, you can see why that for diabetes alone there is reason to pick the high deductible plan and pay a max of $3,000 for these supplies out of pocket.

The daily and yearly costs of living with celiac disease

But I don’t just have type 1 diabetes, so the above are not my only health supply costs.

I also have celiac disease. The treatment is a 100% gluten free diet, and eating gluten free is notoriously more expensive than the standard cost of food, whether that is groceries or eating out.

However, the cost of gluten free food isn’t covered by health insurance, so that doesn’t go in my cost calculation toward pricing the best insurance plan. Yet, it does go into my “how much does it cost every day from my health conditions” mental calculation.

I recently looked at a blog post that summarized the cost of gluten free groceries by state compared to low/medium/high grocery costs for the average person. By extrapolating my state’s numbers from a high-cost grocery budget, plus adding $5 each for eating out twice a week (typically gluten free food has at least a $2-3 surcharge in addition to being at higher cost restaurants, plus the fact that I can’t go eat at most drive-throughs, which is why I use $5/meal to offset the combined cost of the actual surcharge plus my actual options being more expensive).

I ended up estimating about a $3 daily average higher cost of being gluten free, or $1,100 per year cost of eating gluten free for celiac.

That’s probably an underestimate for me, but to give a ballpark, that’s another $1,000 or more I’m paying out of pocket in addition to healthcare costs through insurance.

The daily and yearly cost of living with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and the daily and yearly cost of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy

I spent a pleasant (so to speak) dozen or so years when “all” I had to pay for was diabetes supplies and gluten free food. However, in 2022, I was diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (and more recently also Graves’ disease, more on that cost below) and because I have spent ~20 years paying for diabetes, I wasn’t super surprised at the costs of EPI/PEI. However, most people get extreme sticker shock (so to speak) when they learn about the costs of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT).

In summary, since most people don’t know about it: exocrine pancreatic insufficiency occurs for a variety of reasons, but is highly correlated with all types of diabetes, celiac, and other pancreatic conditions. When you have EPI, you need to take enzymes every time you eat food to help your body digest fat, protein, and carbohydrates, because in EPI your pancreas is not producing enough enzymes to successfully break down the food on its own. (Read a lot more about EPI here.)

Like diabetes, where different people may use very different amounts of insulin, in EPI people may need very different amounts of enzymes. This, like insulin, can be influenced by their body’s makeup, and also by the composition of what they are eating.

I use PERT (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy) to also describe the prescription enzyme pills used for EPI. There are 6 different brands approved by the FDA in the US. They also come in different sizes; e.g. Brand A has 3,000, 6,000, 12,000, 24,000, 36,000 size pills. Those size refer to the units of lipase. Brand B has 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, 25,000, 40,000. Brands C, D, E and F have similar variety of sizes. The point is that when people compare amounts of enzymes you need to take into account 1) how many pills are they taking and 2) how much lipase (and protease and amylase) each of those pills are.

There is no generic for PERT. PERT is made from ground up pig pancreas. It’s expensive.

There are over the counter (OTC) enzymes made from alternative (plant etc) sources. However, there are ZERO studies looking at safety and efficacy of them. They typically contain much less lipase per pill; for example, one OTC brand pill contains 4,000 units of lipase per pill, or another contains 17,500 units of lipase per pill.

You also need to factor in the reliability of these non-approved pills. The quality of production can vary drastically. I had one bottle of OTC pills that was fine; then the next bottle of OTC pills I started to find empty capsules and eventually dumped them all out of the bottle and actually used a colander to filter out all of the enzyme powder from the broken capsules. There were more than 30 dud pill capsules that I found in that batch; in a bottle of 250 that means around 12% of them were unusable. That makes the reliability of the other ones suspect as well.

A pile of powder in the sink next to a colander where a bunch of pills sit. The colander was used to filter out the loose powder. On the right of the image is a baggie with empty pill capsules, illustrating where this loose powder came from. This shows the unreliability of over the counter (OTC) enzymes.

If the reliability of these pills even making it to you without breaking can be sketchy, then you need to assume that the counts of how much lipase (and protease and amylase) may not be precisely what the label is reporting. Again, there have been no tests for efficacy of these pills, so anyone with EPI or PEI needs to use these carefully and be aware of these limitations.

This unreliability isn’t necessarily true of all brands, however, or all types of OTC enzymes. That was a common brand of pancrelipase (aka contains lipase, protease, and amylase). I’ve had more success with the reliability of a lipase-only pill that contains about 6,000 units of lipase. However, it’s more expensive per pill (and doesn’t contain any of the other enzymes). I’ve used it to “top off” a meal with my prescription PERT when my meal contains a little bit more fat than what one PERT pill would “cover” on its own.

This combination of OTC and prescription PERT is where the math starts to get complicated for determining the daily cost and yearly cost of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy.

Let’s say that I take 6-8 prescription PERT pills every day to cover what I eat. It varies because I don’t always eat the same type or amount of food; I adjust based on what I am eating.

The cost with my insurance and a 90 day supply is $8.34 for one PERT pill.

Depending on whether I am eating less fat and protein on a particular day and only need 6 PERT, the cost per day of enzymes for EPI might be $50.04, whereas if I eat a little more and need 8 PERT, the cost per day of enzymes for EPI could be up to $66.72.

The costs per year of PERT for EPI then would range from $18,000 (~6 per day) to $24,000 (~8 per day).

Please let that sink in.

Eighteen to twenty four thousand dollars to be able to successfully digest my food for a single year, not taking into account the cost of food itself or anything else.

(See why people new to EPI get sticker shock?!)

Even though I’m used to ‘high’ healthcare costs (see above estimates of $8,000 or more per year of diabetes costs), this is a lot of money. Knowing every time that I eat it “costs” at least one $8.34 pill is stressful. Eating a bigger portion of food and needing two or three pills? It really takes a mental toll in addition to a financial cost to think about your meal costing $25.02 (for 3 pills) on top of the cost of the food itself.

This is why OTC pills are interesting, because they are drastically differently priced. The 4,000 unit of lipase multi-enzyme pill that I described costs $0.09 per pill, which is about $0.02 per 1000 units of lipase. Compared to my prescription PERT which is $0.33 per 1000 units of lipase, it’s a lot cheaper.

But again, check out those pictures above of the 4,000 units of lipase OTC pills. Can you rely on those?

Not in the same way you can with the prescription PERT.

In the course of taking 1,254 prescription PERT pills this year (so far), I have not had a single issue with one of those pills. So in part the high cost is to ensure the safety and efficacy. Compare that to 12% (or more) of the OTC pills being complete duds (empty pill capsules that have emptied their powder into the bottle) and some % of unreliability even with a not-broken capsule.

Therefore it’s not feasible to me to completely replace prescription PERT with OTC pills, although it’s tempting purely on price.

I previously wrote at a high level about the cost calculations of PERT, but given my desire to look at the annual cost for estimating my insurance plan (plus many more months of data), I went deeper into the math.

I need to take anywhere from 2-6 OTC pills (depending on the brand and size) to “match” the size of one PERT. I found a new type (to me) of OTC pills that are more units of lipase (so I need 2 to match one PERT) instead of the two other kinds (which took either 4 or 6 to match one PERT), which would enable me to cut down on the number of pills swallowed.

The number of pills swallowed matters.

So far (as of mid-November, after starting PERT in early January), I have swallowed at least 1,254 prescription PERT enzyme pills. I don’t have as much precision of numbers on my OTC pills because I don’t always log them (there’s probably a few dozen I haven’t written down, but I probably have logged 95% of them in my enzyme tracking spreadsheet that I use to help calculate the amount needed for each meal/snack and also to look at trends.), but it’s about 2,100 OTC enzyme pills swallowed.

This means cumulatively this year (which is not over), I have swallowed over 3,300 enzyme pills. That’s about 10 enzyme pills swallowed every day!

That’s a lot of swallowing.

That’s why switching to a brand that is more units of lipase per pill, where 2 of these new OTC kind matches one PERT instead of 4-6, is also significant. While it is also slightly cheaper than the combination of the two I was using previously (a lipase-only and a multi-enzyme version), it is fewer pills to achieve the same amount.

If I had taken prescription PERT instead of the OTCs, it would have saved me over 1,600 pills to swallow so far this year.

You might be thinking: take the prescription PERT! Don’t worry about the OTC pills! OMG that’s a lot of pills.

(OMG, it *is* a lot of pills: I think that as well now that I’m adding up all of these numbers.)

Thankfully, so far I am not having issues with swallowing these pills. As I get older, that might change and be a bigger factor in determining my strategy for how I dose enzymes; but right now, that’s not the biggest factor. Instead, I’m looking at efficacy (getting the right amount of enzymes to match my food), the cost (in terms of price), and then optimizing and reducing the total number of pills if I can. But the price is such a big variable that it is playing the largest role in determining my strategy.

How should we collectively pay for this?

You see, I don’t have EPI in a vacuum.

As I described at the top of the post, I already have $8,000+ of yearly diabetes costs. The $18,000 (or $24,000 or more) yearly enzyme costs are a lot. Cumulatively, just these two alone mean my supply costs are $26-32,000 (or more), excluding other healthcare costs. Thankfully, I do have insurance to cover costs after I hit my out of pocket max, but the bigger question is: who should be paying for this?

If my insurer pays more, then the employer pays more, which means employees get worse coverage on our pooled insurance plan. Premiums go up and/or the plans cover less, and the out of pocket costs to everyone goes up.

So while it is tempting to try to “stuff” all of my supply needs into insurance-covered supplies, in order to reduce my personal out of pocket costs in the short run, that raises costs for everyone in the long run.

This year, for all of those (remember I estimated 2,100 OTC pills swallowed to date) OTC pills I bought, it cost me $515. Out of pocket. Not billed through insurance; they know nothing about it.

It feels like a lot of money. However, if you calculate how many PERT it replaced and the cost per PERT pill, I saved $4,036 by swallowing 1,652 extra pills.

Is paying $500 to save everyone else $4000 worth it?

I think so.

Again, the “price” question gets interesting.

The raw costs of yearly supplies I don’t pay completely; remember with health insurance I am capped at $3,000 out of pocket for supplies I get through insurance. However, again, it’s worth considering that additional costs do not cost me but they cost the insurer, and therefore the employer and our pool of people in this insurance plan and influences future costs for everyone on insurance. So if I can afford (although I don’t like it) $500-ish out of pocket and save everyone $4,000 – that’s worth doing.

Although, I think I can improve on that math for next year.

I was taking the two OTC kinds that I had mentioned: one that was lipase-only and very reliable, but $0.28/pill or $0.04 per 1000 units of lipase (and contains ~6000 units of lipase). The less reliable multi-enzyme pill was cheaper ($.09) per pill but only contains 4000 units of lipase, and was $.02 per 1000 units of lipase. That doesn’t factor in the duds and the way I had to increase the number of pills to account for the lack of faith I had in the 4000 units of lipase always being 4000 units of lipase.

The new OTC pill I mentioned above is $0.39 per pill, which is fairly equivalent price to a combined lipase-only and multi-enzyme pill. In fact, I often would take 1+1 for snacks that had a few grams of protein and more than a few grams of lipase. So one new pill will cover 17,000 units of lipase (instead of 10,000, made up of 6000+4000) at a similar cost: $0.39 instead of $0.36 (for the two combined). And, it also has a LOT more protease per pill, too. It has >2x the amount of protease as the multi-enzyme OTC pill, and is very similar to the amount of protease in my prescription PERT! I’ve mostly discussed the math by units of lipase, but I also dose based on how much protein I’m eating (thus, protease to cover protein the way lipase covers fat digestion), so this is also a benefit. As a result, two of the new OTC pill now more than match 1 PERT on lipase, double the protease to 1 PERT, and is only two swallows instead of the 4-6 swallows needed with the previous combination of OTCs.

I have only tested for a few days, but so far this new OTC is working fairly well as a substitute for my previous two OTC kinds.

Given the unreliability of OTCs, even with different brands that are more reliable than the above picture, I still want to consume one prescription PERT to “anchor” my main meals. I can then “top off” with some of the new OTC pills, which is lower price than more PERT but has the tradeoff cost of slightly less reliability compared to PERT.

So with 3 main meals, that means at least 3 PERT per day ($8.34 per pill) at $25.02 per day in prescription PERT costs and $9,132 per year in prescription PERT costs. Then to cover the additional 3-5 PERT pills I would otherwise need, assuming 2 of the new OTC covers 1 PERT pills, that is 6-10 OTC pills.

Combined, 3 PERT + 6 OTC pills or 3 PERT + 10 OTC pills would be $27.36 or $28.92 per day, or $9,986 or $10,556 per year.

Still quite a bit of money, but compared to 6-8 PERT per day (yearly cost $18,264 to $24,352), it saves somewhere between $7,708 per year (comparing 6 PERT to 3 PERT + 6 OTC pills per day) all the way up to $14,366 per year (comparing 8 PERT to 3 PERT +10 OTC pills per day).

And coming back to number of pills swallowed, 6 PERT per day would be 2,190 swallows per year; 8 PERT pills per day is 2,920 swallows per year; 3 PERT + 6 OTC is 9 pills per day which is 3,285 swallows per year; and 3 PERT + 10 OTC is 13 swallows per day which is 4,745 swallows per year.

That is 1,095 more swallows per year (3PERT+6 OTC vs 6 PERT) or 1,825 more swallows per year (3 PERT + 10 OTC vs 8 PERT).

Given that I estimated I swallowed ~10 enzyme pills per day this year so far, the estimated range of 9-13 swallows with the combination of PERT and OTC pills (either 3 PERT + (6 or 10) OTC) for next year seems reasonable.

Again, in future this might change if I begin to have issues swallowing for whatever reason, but in my current state it seems doable.

The daily and annual costs of thyroid treatment for Graves’ Disease

No, we’re still not done yet with annual health cost math. I also developed Graves’ disease with subclinical hyperthyroidism this year, putting me to a grand total of 4 chronic health conditions.

Luckily, though, the 4th time was the charm and I finally have a cheap(er) one!

My thyroid med DOES have a generic. It’s cheap: $11.75 for 3 months of a once-daily pill! Woohoo! That means $0.13 per day cost of thyroid treatment and $48 per year cost of thyroid treatment.

(Isn’t it nice to have cheap, easy math about at least one of 4 things? I think so!)

Adding up all the costs of diabetes, celiac disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Graves’ Disease

High five if you’ve read this entire post; and no problem if you skimmed the sections you didn’t care about.

Adding it all up, my personal costs are:

  • Diabetes: $23.25 per day; $8,486 per year
  • Celiac: $3 per day; $1,100 per year (all out of pocket)
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency:
    • Anywhere from $50.04 up to $66.72 per day with just prescription PERT pills; $18,265 (6 per day) to $24,353 (8 per day) per year
    • With a mix of prescription and OTC pills, $27.36 to $28.92 per day; $9,986 to $10,556 per year.
    • Of this, the out of pocket cost for me would be $2.34 to $3.90 per day; or $854 up to $1,424 per year.
  • Thyroid/Graves: $0.13 per day; $48 per year

Total yearly cost:

  • $27,893 (where EPI costs are 6 prescription PERT per day); 2,190 swallows
  • $33,982 (where EPI costs are 8 prescription PERT per day); 2,920 swallows
  • $19,615 (where EPI costs are 3 prescription PERT and 6 OTC per day); 3,285 swallows
  • $20,185 (where EPI costs are 3 prescription PERT and 9 OTC per day); 4,745 swallows

* My out of pocket costs per year are $854-$1424 for EPI when using OTCs to supplement prescription PERT and an estimated $1,100 for celiac-related gluten free food costs. 

** Daily cost-wise, that means $76.42, $93.10, $53.74, or $55.30 daily costs respectively.

*** The swallow “cost” is 1,095-1,825 more swallows per year to get the lower price cost of enzymes by combining prescription and OTC.

Combining these out of pocket costs with my $3,000 out of pocket max on my insurance plan, I can expect that I will therefore pay around $4,900 to $5,600 next year in health supply costs, plus another few hundred for things like tape or vitamins etc. that aren’t major expenses.

TLDR: 

  • Diabetes is expensive, and it’s not just insulin.
    • Insulin is roughly 19% of my daily cost of diabetes supplies. CGM is currently 56% of my diabetes supply costs.
  • EPI is super expensive.
    • OTC pills can supplement prescription PERT but have reliability issues.
    • However, combined with prescription PERT it can help drastically cut the price of EPI.
    • The cost of this price reduction is significantly more pills to swallow on a daily basis, and adds an additional out of pocket cost that insurance doesn’t cover.
    • However in my case; I am privileged enough to afford this cost and choose this over increasing everyone in my insurance plan’s costs.
  • Celiac is expensive and mostly an out of pocket cost.
  • Thyroid is not as expensive to manage with daily medication. Yay for one of four being reasonably priced!

REMEMBER to not use these numbers or math out of context and apply them to any other person; this is based on my usage of insulin, enzymes, etc as well as my insurance plan’s costs.

Yearly costs, prices, and calculations of living with 4 chronic diseases (type 1 diabetes, celiac, Graves, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency)

Regulatory Approval Is A Red Herring

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the last 8 years is whether or not we are submitting OpenAPS to the FDA for regulatory approval.

This question is a big red herring.

Regulatory approval is often seen and discussed as the one path for authenticating and validating safety and efficacy.

It’s not the only way.

It’s only one way.

As background, you need to understand what OpenAPS is. We took an already-approved insulin pump that I already had, a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that I already had, and found a way to read data from those devices and also to use the already-built commands in the pump to send back instructions to automate insulin delivery via the decision-making algorithm that we created. The OpenAPS algorithm was the core innovation, along with the realization that this already-approved pump had those capabilities built in. We used various off the shelf hardware (mini-computers and radio communication boards) to interoperate with my already approved medical devices. There was novelty in how we put all the pieces together, though the innovation was the algorithm itself.

The caveat, though, is that although the pump I was using was regulatory-approved and on the market, which is how I already had it, it had later been recalled after researchers, the manufacturer, and the FDA realized that you could use the already-built commands in the pump’s infrastructure. So these pumps, while not causing harm to anyone and no cases of harm have ever been recorded, were no longer being sold. It wasn’t a big deal to the company; it was a voluntary recall, and people like me often chose to keep our pumps if we were not concerned about this potential risk.

We had figured out how to interoperate with these other devices. We could have taken our system to the FDA. But because we were using already-off-the-market pumps, there was no way the FDA would approve it. And at the time (circa 2014), there was no vision or pathway for interoperable devices, so they didn’t have the infrastructure to approve “just” an automated insulin delivery algorithm. (That changed many years later and they now have infrastructure for reviewing interoperable pumps, CGM, and algorithms which they call controllers).

The other relevant fact is that the FDA has jurisdiction based on the commerce clause in the US Constitution: Congress used its authority to authorize the FDA to regulate interstate commerce in food, drugs, and medical devices. So if you’re intending to be a commercial entity and sell products, you must submit for regulatory approval.

But if you’re not going to sell products…

This is the other aspect that many people don’t seem to understand. All roads do not lead to regulatory approval because not everyone wants to create a company and spend 5+ years dedicating all their time to it. That’s what we would have had to do in order to have a company to try to pursue regulatory approval.

And the key point is: given such a strict regulatory environment, we (speaking for Dana and Scott) did not want to commercialize anything. Therefore there was no point in submitting for regulatory approval. Regardless of whether or not the FDA was likely to approve given the situation at the time, we did not want to create a company, spend years of our life dealing with regulatory and compliance issues full time, and maybe eventually get permission to sell a thing (that we didn’t care about selling).

The aspect of regulatory approval is a red herring in the story of the understanding of OpenAPS and the impact it is having and could have.

Yes, we could have created a company. But then we would not have been able to spend the thousands of hours that we spent improving the system we made open source and helping thousands of individuals who were able to use the algorithm and subsequent systems with a variety of pumps, CGMs, and mobile devices as an open source automated insulin delivery system. We intentionally chose this path to not commercialize and thus not to pursue regulatory approval.

As a result of our work (and others from the community), the ecosystem has now changed.

Time has also passed: it’s been 8 years since I first automated insulin delivery for myself!

The commercial players have brought multiple commercial AIDs to market now, too.

We created OpenAPS when there was NO commercial option at the time. Now there are a few commercial options.

But it is also an important note that I, and many thousands of other people, are still choosing to use open source AID systems.

Why?

This is another aspect of the red herring of regulatory approval.

Just because something is approved does not mean it’s available to order.

If it’s available to order (and not all countries have approved AID systems!), it doesn’t mean it’s accessible or affordable.

Insurance companies are still fighting against covering pumps and CGMs as standalone devices. New commercial AID systems are even more expensive, and the insurance companies are fighting against coverage for them, too. So just because someone wants an AID and has one approved in their country doesn’t mean that they will be able to access and/or afford it. Many people with diabetes struggle with the cost of insulin, or the cost of CGM and/or their insulin pump.

Sometimes providers refuse to prescribe devices, based on preconceived notions (and biases) about who might do “well” with new therapies based on past outcomes with different therapies.

For some, open source AID is still the most accessible and affordable option.

And in some places, it is still the ONLY option available to automate insulin delivery.

(And in most places, open source AID is still the most advanced, flexible, and customizable option.)

Understanding the many reasons why someone might choose to use open source automated insulin delivery folds back into the understanding of how someone chooses to use open source automated insulin delivery.

It is tied to the understanding that manual insulin delivery – where someone makes all the decisions themselves and injects or presses buttons manually to deliver insulin – is inherently risky.

Automated insulin delivery reduces risk compared to manual insulin delivery. While some new risk is introduced (as is true of any additional devices), the net risk reduction overall is significantly large compared to manual insulin delivery.

This net risk reduction is important to contextualize.

Without automated insulin delivery, people overdose or underdose on insulin multiple times a day, causing adverse effects and bad outcomes and decreasing their quality of life. Even when they’re doing everything right, this is inevitable because the timing of insulin is so challenging to manage alongside dozens of other variables that at every decision point play a role in influencing the glucose outcomes.

With open source automated insulin delivery, it is not a single point-in-time decision to use the system.

Every moment, every day, people are actively choosing to use their open source automated insulin delivery system because it is better than the alternative of managing diabetes manually without automated insulin delivery.

It is a conscious choice that people make every single day. They could otherwise choose to not use the automated components and “fall back” to manual diabetes care at any moment of the day or night if they so choose. But most don’t, because it is safer and the outcomes are better with automated insulin delivery.

Each individual’s actions to use open source AID on an ongoing basis are data points on the increased safety and efficacy.

However, this paradigm of patient-generated data and patient choice as data contributing toward safety and efficacy is new. There are not many, if any, other examples of patient-developed technology that does not go down the commercial path, so there are not a lot of comparisons for open source AID systems.

As a result, when there were questions about the safety and efficacy of the system (e.g., “how do you know it works for someone else other than you, Dana?”), we began to research as a community to address the questions. We published data at the world’s biggest scientific conference and were peer-reviewed by scientists and accepted to present a poster. We did so. We were cited in a piece in Nature as a result. We then were invited to submit a letter to the editor of a traditional diabetes journal to summarize our findings; we did so and were published.

I then waited for the rest of the research community to pick up this lead and build on the work…but they didn’t. I picked it up again and began facilitating research directly with the community, coordinating efforts to make anonymized pools of data for individuals with open source AID to submit their data to and for years have facilitated access to dozens of researchers to use this data for additional research. This has led to dozens of publications further documenting the efficacy of these solutions.

Yet still, there was concern around safety because the healthcare world didn’t know how to assess these patient-generated data points of choice to use this system because it was better than the alternative every single day.

So finally, as a direct result of presenting this community-based research again at the world’s largest diabetes scientific conference, we were able to collaborate and design a grant proposal that received grant funding from New Zealand’s Health Research Council (the equivalent of the NIH in the US) for a randomized control trial of the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID system.

An RCT is often seen as the gold standard in science, so the fact that we received funding for such a study alone was a big milestone.

And this year, in 2022, the RCT was completed and our findings were published in one of the world’s largest medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine, establishing that the use of the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID was found to be safe and effective in children and adults.

No surprises here, though. I’ve been using this system for more than 8 years, and seeing thousands of others choose the OpenAPS algorithm on an ongoing, daily basis for similar reasons.

So today, it is possible that someone could take an open source AID system using the OpenAPS algorithm to the FDA for regulatory approval. It won’t likely be me, though.

Why not? The same reasons apply from 8 years ago: I am not a company, I don’t want to create a company to be able to sell things to end users. The path to regulatory approval primarily matters for those who want to sell commercial products to end users.

Also, regulatory approval (if someone got the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID or a different algorithm in an open source AID) does not mean it will be commercially available, even if it will be approved.

It requires a company that has pumps and CGMs it can sell alongside the AID system OR commercial partnerships ready to go that are able to sell all of the interoperable, approved components to interoperate with the AID system.

So regulatory approval of an AID system (algorithm/mobile controller design) without a commercial partnership plan ready to go is not very meaningful to people with diabetes in and of itself. It sounds cool, but will it actually do anything? In and of itself, no.

Thus, the red herring.

Might it be meaningful eventually? Yes, possibly, especially if we collectively have insurers to get over themselves and provide coverage for AID systems given that AID systems all massively improve short-term and long-term outcomes for people with diabetes.

But as I said earlier, regulatory approval does necessitate access nor affordability, so an approved system that’s not available and affordable to people is not a system that can be used by many.

We have a long way to go before commercial AID systems are widely accessible and affordable, let alone available in every single country for people with diabetes worldwide.

Therefore, regulatory approval is only one piece of this puzzle.

And it is not the only way to assess safety and efficacy.

The bigger picture this has shown me over the years is that while systems are created to reduce harm toward people – and this is valid and good – there have been tendencies to convert to the assumption that therefore the systems are the only way to achieve the goal of harm reduction or to assess safety and efficacy.

They aren’t the only way.

As explained above, FDA approval is one method of creating a rubber stamp as a shorthand for “is this considered to be safe and effective”.

That’s also legally necessary for companies to use if they want to sell products. For situations that aren’t selling products, it’s not the only way to assess safety and efficacy, which we have shown with OpenAPS.

With open source automated insulin delivery systems, individuals have access to every line of code and can test and choose for themselves, not just once, but every single day, whether they consider it to be safer and more effective for them than manual insulin dosing. Instead of blindly trusting a company, they get the choice to evaluate what they’re using in a different way – if they so choose.

So any questions around seeking regulatory approval are red herrings.

A different question might be: What’s the future of the OpenAPS algorithm?

The answer is written in our OpenAPS plain language reference design that we posted in February of 2015. We detailed our vision for individuals like us, researchers, and companies to be able to use it in the future.

And that’s how it’s being used today, by 1) people like me; and 2)  in research, to improve what we can learn about diabetes itself and improve AID; and 3) by companies, one of whom has already incorporated parts of our safety design as part of a safety layer in their ML-based AID system and has CE mark approval and is being sold and used by thousands of people in Europe.

It’s possible that someone will take it for regulatory approval; but that’s not necessary for the thousands of people already using it. That may or may not make it more available for thousands more (see earlier caveats about needing commercial partnerships to be able to interoperate with pumps and CGMs).

And regardless, it is still being used to change the world for thousands of people and help us learn and understand new things about the physiology of diabetes because of the way it was designed.

That’s how it’s been used and that’s the future of how it will continue to be used.

No rubber stamps required.

Regulatory Approval: A Red Herring

Understanding the Difference Between Open Source and DIY in Diabetes

There’s been a lot of excitement (yay!) about the results of the CREATE trial being published in NEJM, followed by the presentation of the continuation results at EASD. This has generated a lot of blog posts, news articles, and discussion about what was studied and what the implications are.

One area that I’ve noticed is frequently misunderstood is how “open source” and “DIY” are different.

Open source means that the source code is openly available to view. There are different licenses with open source; most allow you to also take and reuse and modify the code however you like. Some “copy-left” licenses commercial entities to open-source any software they build using such code. Most companies can and do use open source code, too, although in healthcare most algorithms and other code related to FDA-regulated activity is proprietary. Most open source licenses allow free individual use.

For example, OpenAPS is open source. You can find the core code of the algorithm here, hosted on Github, and read every line of code. You can take it, copy it, use it as-is or modify it however you like, because the MIT license we put on the code says you can!

As an individual, you can choose to use the open source code to “DIY” (do-it-yourself) an automated insulin delivery system. You’re DIY-ing, meaning you’re building it yourself rather than buying it or a service from a company.

In other words, you can DIY with open source. But open source and DIY are not the same thing!

Open source can and is usually is used commercially in most industries. In healthcare and in diabetes specifically, there are only a few examples of this. For OpenAPS, as you can read in our plain language reference design, we wanted companies to use our code as well as individuals (who would DIY with it). There’s at least one commercial company now using ideas from the OpenAPS codebase and our safety design as a safety layer against their ML algorithm, to make sure that the insulin dosing decisions are checked against our safety design. How cool!

However, they’re a company, and they have wrapped up their combination of proprietary software and the open source software they have implemented, gotten a CE mark (European equivalent of FDA approval), and commercialized and sold their AID product to people with diabetes in Europe. So, those customers/users/people with diabetes are benefitting from open source, although they are not DIY-ing their AID.

Outside of healthcare, open source is used far more pervasively. Have you ever used Zoom? Zoom uses open source; you then use Zoom, although not in a DIY way. Same with Firefox, the browser. Ever heard of Adobe? They use open source. Facebook. Google. IBM. Intel. LinkedIn. Microsoft. Netflix. Oracle. Samsung. Twitter. Nearly every product or service you use is built with, depends on, or contains open source components. Often times open source is more commonly used by companies to then provide products to users – but not always.

So, to more easily understand how to talk about open source vs DIY:

  • The CREATE trial used a version of open source software and algorithm (the OpenAPS algorithm inside a modified version of the AndroidAPS application) in the study.
  • The study was NOT on “DIY” automated insulin delivery; the AID system was handed/provided to participants in the study. There was no DIY component in the study, although the same software is used both in the study and in the real world community by those who do DIY it. Instead, the point of the trial was to study the safety and efficacy of this version of open source AID.
  • Open source is not the same as DIY.
  • OpenAPS is open source and can be used by anyone – companies that want to commercialize, or individuals who want to DIY. For more information about our vision for this, check out the OpenAPS plain language reference design.
Venn diagram showing a small overlap between a bigger open source circle and a smaller DIY circle. An arrow points to the overlapping section, along with text of "OpenAPS". Below it text reads: "OpenAPS is open source and can be used DIY. DIY in diabetes often uses open source, but not always. Not all open source is used DIY."

Continuation Results On 48 Weeks of Use Of Open Source Automated Insulin Delivery From the CREATE Trial: Safety And Efficacy Data

In addition to the primary endpoint results from the CREATE trial, which you can read more about in detail here or as published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there was also a continuation phase study of the CREATE trial. This meant that all participants from the CREATE trial, including those who were randomized to the automated insulin delivery (AID) arm and those who were randomized to sensor-augmented insulin pump therapy (SAPT, which means just a pump and CGM, no algorithm), had the option to continue for another 24 weeks using the open source AID system.

These results were presented by Dr. Mercedes J. Burnside at #EASD2022, and I’ve summarized her presentation and the results below on behalf of the CREATE study team.

What is the “continuation phase”?

The CREATE trial was a multi-site, open-labeled, randomized, parallel-group, 24-week superiority trial evaluating the efficacy and safety of an open-source AID system using the OpenAPS algorithm in a modified version of AndroidAPS. Our study found that across children and adults, the percentage of time that the glucose level was in the target range of 3.9-10mmol/L [70-180mg/dL] was 14 percentage points higher among those who used the open-source AID system (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.2 to 18.8; P<0.001) compared to those who used sensor augmented pump therapy; a difference that corresponds to 3 hours 21 minutes more time spent in target range per day. The system did not contribute to any additional hypoglycemia. Glycemic improvements were evident within the first week and were maintained over the 24-week trial. This illustrates that all people with T1D, irrespective of their level of engagement with diabetes self-care and/or previous glycemic outcomes, stand to benefit from AID. This initial study concluded that open-source AID using the OpenAPS algorithm within a modified version of AndroidAPS, a widely used open-source AID solution, is efficacious and safe. These results were from the first 24-week phase when the two groups were randomized into SAPT and AID, accordingly.

The second 24-week phase is known as the “continuation phase” of the study.

There were 52 participants who were randomized into the SAPT group that chose to continue in the study and used AID for the 24 week continuation phase. We refer to those as the “SAPT-AID” group. There were 42 participants initially randomized into AID who continued to use AID for another 24 weeks (the AID-AID group).

One slight change to the continuation phase was that those in the SAPT-AID used a different insulin pump than the one used in the primary phase of the study (and 18/42 AID-AID participants also switched to this different pump during the continuation phase), but it was a similar Bluetooth-enabled pump that was interoperable with the AID system (app/algorithm) and CGM used in the primary outcome phase.

All 42 participants in AID-AID completed the continuation phase; 6 participants (out of 52) in the SAPT-AID group withdrew. One withdrew from infusion site issues; three with pump issues; and two who preferred SAPT.

What are the results from the continuation phase?

In the continuation phase, those in the SAPT-AID group saw a change in time in range (TIR) from 55±16% to 69±11% during the continuation phase when they used AID. In the SAPT-AID group, the percentage of participants who were able to achieve the target goals of TIR > 70% and time below range (TBR) <4% increased from 11% of participants during SAPT use to 49% during the 24 week AID use in the continuation phase. Like in the primary phase for AID-AID participants; the SAPT-AID participants saw the greatest treatment effect overnight with a TIR difference of 20.37% (95% CI, 17.68 to 23.07; p <0.001), and 9.21% during the day (95% CI, 7.44 to 10.98; p <0.001) during the continuation phase with open source AID.

Those in the AID-AID group, meaning those who continued for a second 24 week period using AID, saw similar TIR outcomes. Prior to AID use at the start of the study, TIR for that group was 61±14% and increased to 71±12% at the end of the primary outcome phase; after the next 6 months of the continuation phase, TIR was maintained at 70±12%. In this AID-AID group, the percentage of participants achieving target goals of TIR >70% and TBR <4% was 52% of participants in the first 6 months of AID use and 45% during the continuation phase. Similarly to the primary outcomes phase, in the continuation phase there was also no treatment effect by age interaction (p=0.39).

The TIR outcomes between both groups (SAPT-AID and AID-AID) were very similar after each group had used AID for 24 weeks (SAPT-AID group using AID for 24 weeks during the continuation phase and AID-AID using AID for 24 weeks during the initial RCT phase).. The adjusted difference in TIR between these groups was 1% (95% CI, -4 to 6; p=-0.67). There were no glycemic outcome differences between those using the two different study pumps (n=69, which was the SAPT-AID user group and 18 AID-AID participants who switched for continuation; and n=25, from the AID-AID group who elected to continue on the pump they used in the primary outcomes phase).

In the initial primary results (first 24 weeks of trial comparing the AID group to the SAPT group), there was a 14 percentage point difference between the groups. In the continuation phase, all used AID and the adjusted mean difference in TIR between AID and the initial SAPT results was a similar 12.10 percentage points (95% CI, p<0.001, SD 8.40).

Similar to the primary phase, there was no DKA or severe hypoglycemia. Long-term use (over 48 weeks, representing 69 person-years) did not detect any rare severe adverse events.

CREATE results from the full 48 weeks on open source AID with both SAPT (control) and AID (intervention) groups plotted on the graph.

Conclusion of the continuation study from the CREATE trial

In conclusion, the continuation study from the CREATE trial found that open-source AID using the OpenAPS algorithm within a modified version of AndroidAPS is efficacious and safe with various hardware (pumps), and demonstrates sustained glycaemic improvements without additional safety concerns.

Key points to takeaway:

  • Over 48 weeks total of the study (6 months or 24 weeks in the primary phase; 6 months/24 weeks in the continuation phase), there were 64 person-years of use of open source AID in the study, compared to 59 person-years of use of sensor-augmented pump therapy.
  • A variety of pump hardware options were used in the primary phase of the study among the SAPT group, due to hardware (pump) availability limitations. Different pumps were also used in the SAPT-AID group during the AID continuation phase, compared to the pumps available in the AID-AID group throughout both phases of trial. (Also, 18/42 of AID-AID participants chose to switch to the other pump type during the continuation phase).
  • The similar TIR results (14 percentage points difference in primary and 12 percentage points difference in continuation phase between AID and SAPT groups) shows durability of the open source AID and algorithm used, regardless of pump hardware.
  • The SAPT-AID group achieved similar TIR results at the end of their first 6 months of use of AID when compared to the AID-AID group at both their initial 6 months use and their total 12 months/48 weeks of use at the end of the continuation phase.
  • The safety data showed no DKA or severe hypoglycemia in either the primary phase or the continuation phases.
  • Glycemic improvements from this version of open source AID (the OpenAPS algorithm in a modified version of AndroidAPS) are not only immediate but also sustained, and do not increase safety concerns.
CREATE Trial Continuation Results were presented at #EASD2022 on 48 weeks of use of open source AID

Wondering about the “how” rather than the “why” of autoimmune conditions

I’ve been thinking a lot about stigma, per a previous post of mine, and how I generally react to, learn about, and figure out how to deal with new chronic diseases.

I’ve observed a pattern in my experiences. When I suspect an issue, I begin with research. I read medical literature to find out the basics of what is known. I read a high volume of material, over a range of years, to see what is known and the general “ground truth” about what has stayed consistent over the years and where things might have changed. This is true for looking into causal mechanisms as well as diagnosis and then more importantly to me, management/treatment.

I went down a new rabbit hole of research and most articles were publicly accessible

A lot of times with autoimmune related diseases…the causal mechanism is unknown. There are correlations, there are known risk factors, but there’s not always a clear answer of why things happen.

I realize that I am lucky that my first “thing” (type 1 diabetes) was known to be an autoimmune condition, and that probably has framed my response to celiac disease (6 years later); exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (19+ years after diabetes); and now Graves’ disease (19+ years after diabetes). Why do I think that is lucky? Because when I’m diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, it’s not a surprise that it IS an autoimmune condition. When you have a nicely overactive immune system, it interferes with how your body is managing things. In type 1 diabetes, it eventually makes it so the beta cells in your pancreas no longer produce insulin. In celiac, it makes it so the body has an immune reaction to gluten, and the villi in your small intestine freak out at the microscopic, crumb-level presence of gluten (and if you keep eating gluten, can cause all sorts of damage). In exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, there is possibly either atrophy as a result of the pancreas not producing insulin or other immune-related responses – or similar theories related to EPI and celiac in terms of immune responses. It’s not clear ‘why’ or which mechanism (celiac, T1D, or autoimmune in general) caused my EPI, and not knowing that doesn’t bother me, because it’s clearly linked to autoimmune shenanigans. Now with Graves’ disease, I also know that low TSH and increased thyroid antibodies are causing subclinical hyperthyroidism symptoms (such as occasional minor tremor, increased resting HR, among others) and Graves’ ophthalmology symptoms as a result of the thyroid antibodies. The low TSH and increased thyroid antibodies are a result of my immune system deciding to poke at my thyroid.

All this to say…I typically wonder less about “why” I have gotten these things, in part because the “why” doesn’t change “what” to do; I simply keep gathering new data points that I have an overactive immune system that gives me autoimmune stuff to deal with.

I have contrasted this with a lot of posts I observe in some of the online EPI groups I am a part of. Many people get diagnosed with EPI as a result of ongoing GI issues, which may or may not be related to other conditions (like IBS, which is often a catch-all for GI issues). But there’s a lot of posts wondering “why” they’ve gotten it, seemingly out of the blue.

When I do my initial research/learning on a new autoimmune thing, as I mentioned I do look for causal mechanisms to see what is known or not known. But that’s primarily, I think, to rule out if there’s anything else “new” going on in my body that this mechanism would inform me about. But 3/3 times (following type 1 diabetes, where I first learned about autoimmune conditions), it’s primarily confirmed that I have autoimmune things due to a kick-ass overactive immune system.

What I’ve realized that I often focus on, and most others do not, is what comes AFTER diagnosis. It’s the management (or treatment) of, and living with, these conditions that I want to know more about.

And sadly, especially in the latest two experiences (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Graves’ disease), there is not enough known about management and optimization of dealing with these conditions.

I’ve previously documented and written quite a bit (see a summary of all my posts here) about EPI, including my frustrations about “titrating” or getting the dose right for the enzymes I need to take every single time I eat something. This is part of the “management” gap I find in research and medical knowledge. It seems like clinicians and researchers spend a lot of time on the “why” and the diagnosis/starting point of telling someone they have a condition. But there is way less research about “how” to live and optimally manage these things.

My fellow patients (people with lived experiences) are probably saying “yeah, duh, and that’s the power of social media and patient advocacy groups to share knowledge”. I agree. I say that a lot, too. But one of the reasons these online social media groups are so powerful in sharing knowledge is because of the black hole or vacuum or utter absence of research in this space.

And it’s frustrating! Social media can be super powerful because you can learn about many n=1 experiences. If you’re like me, you analyze the patterns to see what might be reproducible and what is worth experimenting in my own n=1. But often, this knowledge stays in the real world. It is not routinely funded, studied, operationalized, and translated in systematic ways back to healthcare providers. When patients are diagnosed, they’re often told the “what” and occasionally the “why” (if it exists), but left to sometimes fall through the cracks in the “how” of optimally managing the new condition.

(I know, I know. I’m working on that, in diabetes and EPI, and I know dozens of friends, both people with lived experiences and researchers who ARE working on this, from diabetes to brain tumors to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and beyond. And while we are moving the needles here, and making a difference, I’m wanting to highlight the bigger issue to those who haven’t previously been exposed to the issues that cause the gaps we are trying to fill!)

In my newest case of Graves’ disease, it presented with subclinical hyperthyroidism. As I wrote here, that for me means the lower TSH and higher thyroid antibodies but in range T3 and T4. In discussion with my physician, we decided to try an antithyroid drug, to try to lower the antibody levels, because the antibody levels are what cause the related eye symptoms (and they’re quite bothersome). The other primary symptom I have is higher resting HR, which is also really annoying, so I’m also hoping it helps with that, too. But the game plan was to start taking this medication every day; and get follow-up labs in about 2 months, because it takes ~6 weeks to see the change in thyroid levels.

Let me tell you, that’s a long time. I get that the medication works not on stored thyroid levels; thus, it impacts the new production only, and that’s why it takes 6 weeks to see it in the labs because that’s how long it takes to cycle through the stored thyroid stuff in your body.

My hope was that within 2-3 weeks I would see a change in my resting HR levels. I wasn’t sure what else to expect, and whether I’d see any other changes.

But I did.

It was in the course of DAYS, not weeks. It was really surprising! I immediately started to see a change in my resting HR (across two different wearable devices; a ring and a watch). Within a week, my phone’s health flagged it as a “trend”, too, and pinpointed the day (which it didn’t know) that I had started the new medication based on the change in the trending HR values.

Additionally, some of my eye symptoms went away. Prior to commencing the new medication, I would wake up and my eyes would hurt. Lubricating them (with eye drops throughout the day and gel before bed) helped some, but didn’t really fix the problem. I also had pretty significant red, patchy spots around the outside corner of one of my eyes, and eyelid swelling that would push on my eyeball. 4 days into the new medication, I had my first morning where I woke up without my eyes hurting. The next day it returned, and then I had two days without eye pain. Then I had 3-4 days with the painful eyes. Then….now I’m going on 2 weeks without the eye pain?! Meanwhile, I’m also tracking the eye swelling. It went down to match the eye pain going away. But it comes back periodically. Recently, I commented to Scott that I was starting to observe the pattern that the red/patchy skin at the corner and under my right eye would appear; then the next day the swelling of and above the eyelid would return. After 1-2 days of swelling, it would disappear. Because I’ve been tracking various symptoms, I looked at my data the other day and saw that it’s almost a 6-7 day pattern.

Interesting!

Again, the eye stuff is a result of antibody levels. So now I am curious about the production of antibodies and their timeline, and how that differs from TSH and thyroid hormones, and how they’re impacted with this drug.

None of that is information that is easy to get, so I’m deep in the medical literature trying again to find out what is known, whether this type of pattern is known; if it’s common; or if this level of data, like my within-days impact to resting HR change is new information.

Most of the research, sadly, seems to be on pre-diagnosis or what happens if you diagnose someone but not give them medication in hyperthyroid. For example, I found this systematic review on HRV and hyperthyroid and got excited, expecting to learn things that I could use, but found they explicitly removed the 3 studies that involved treating hyperthyroidism and are only studying what happens when you don’t treat it.

Sigh.

This is the type of gap that is so frustrating, as a patient or person who’s living with this. It’s the gap I see in EPI, where little is known on optimal titration and people don’t get prescribed enough enzymes and aren’t taught how to match their dosing to what they are eating, the way we are taught in diabetes to match our insulin dosing to what we’re eating.

And it matters! I’m working on writing up data from a community survey of people with EPI, many of whom shared that they don’t feel like they have their enzyme dosing well matched to what they are eating, in some cases 5+ years after their diagnosis. That’s appalling, to me. Many people with EPI and other conditions like this fall through the cracks with their doctors because there’s no plan or discussion on what managing optimally looks like; what to change if it’s not optimal for a person; and what to do or who to talk to if they need help managing.

Thankfully in diabetes, most people are supported and taught that it’s not “just” a shot of insulin, but there are more variables that need tracking and managing in order to optimize wellbeing and glucose levels when living with diabetes. But it took decades to get there in diabetes, I think.

What would it be like if more chronic diseases, like EPI and Graves’ disease (or any other hyper/hypothyroid-related diseases), also had this type of understanding across the majority of healthcare providers who treated and supported managing these conditions?

How much better would and could people feel? How much more energy would they have to live their lives, work, play with their families and friends? How much more would they thrive, instead of just surviving?

That’s what I wonder.

Wondering "how" rather than "why" of autimmune conditions, by @DanaMLewis from DIYPS.org

Graves’ Disease, Subclinical Hyperthyroidism, and Everything I Have Learned About It (So Far)

TLDR: I have newly diagnosed Graves’ Disease, I have associated eye stuff (called “Graves’ orbitopathy” or “Graves’ ophthalmopathy” or “thyroid eye disease”), subclinical hyperthyroidism, and a new learning curve. Below is what I’ve learned so far and what I’m still exploring.

As a person with type 1 diabetes (T1D) – which is an autoimmune disease – I am screened yearly for various high-risk related conditions. For example, celiac disease and thyroid issues, because those are fairly common in people with type 1 diabetes. I already have celiac disease (developed ~6 years after I developed T1D), but we have continued to screen every year in my annual blood work for thyroid markers, usually by screening T4 and TSH. Occasionally, T3 and/or TPO antibodies are also screened.

I remember vividly the chortle that my prior endocrinologist made after we diagnosed my celiac disease in college, probably in response to my comment about being frustrated of having “another” thing to deal with in addition to T1D. He chortled and said something like “once you have one (autoimmune thing), you’re likely to have two. Once you have two, you’ll be likely to have three.”

I didn’t like it at the time, and I don’t like it now. However, he’s not wrong. When your immune system has a little extra kick in it and you develop one autoimmune disease, the rates of having another autoimmune thing are increased. Thus, the typical yearly screening in T1D for celiac & thyroid.

I went 6 years between T1D and celiac, then almost 12-13 years to discover I now have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). That’s not necessarily an autoimmune thing but may be a side effect of long-term T1D. Regardless, I was still thankful for the long period of time between T1D and celiac, then T1D+celiac and EPI. I was assuming that something else was coming eventually, but that I’d likely have a few years before the shoe dropped.

Nope.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when I scheduled my annual endocrinology appointment and did my annual blood work to find that one of my thyroid values was off. Specifically, my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) was low / below normal range. However, my T4 was smack dab in the middle of normal range. I got my blood work back Tuesday and waited for my virtual appointment on Friday to discuss in detail with my endocrinologist.

Since I’m me, I was curious about the interplay between normal thyroid levels (T4, and I suspected my T3 was likely still in range) but a low TSH value. What did that mean? General consensus seems to define this as “subclinical hyperthyroidism”. It’s not always treated, unless you are older (>65), have osteoporosis or heart disease, or TSH levels are <0.1.

I’m <65, don’t (as far as I know) have osteoporosis or heart disease, and my TSH levels are between 0.1 and 0.4, which is the low end of the normal range. So general treatment guidelines (see this example from the AAFP) suggest treatment isn’t necessarily warranted.

However…there’s more information that factors into the decision making. First, I had my last annual eye exam in October. All was well. Yet in November, I developed really gritty, dry eyes and went in for an appointment. I was diagnosed with dry eyes (gee, thanks!) and recommended to use gel drops at night before bed and regular eye drops during the day as needed. I did end up needing eye drops several times every day.

Then at the end of December or early January, we realized I had exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). I had been wondering if my dry eyes was related to the lack of digestion and absorption of nutrients, which also influences how my body uses the water content from food. It did seem to get a little better in the following months, because while I still needed the eye gel at night, I eventually moved to several days a week where I didn’t seem to need the eye drops during the day – yay!

However, in February and early March, I started to physically notice a shift in my resting overnight heart rate (HR). My Pebble 2+ HR watch and my Oura ring, both of which measure HR and heart rate variability (HRV), confirmed that both metrics were getting worse. I had a slowly increasing overnight HR and associated decrease in HRV. I am used to fluctuations, because the intensity of my ultrarunning can also influence HR the next day as a signal for whether my body has recovered yet or not. But instead of a day or two of increased numbers, I had an increasing trend line over several weeks, and it started to physically become bothersome. I actually raised the idea of getting my thyroid blood work done early this year, and was about to request the lab work, when after ~6 weeks or so the trend seemed to reverse and things (HR-wise) went back to “normal” for me.

Then I broke my toe in July and the same thing happened, but I chalked it up to sleep disruption from the pain and recovering from the fracture. My HR was continuing to rise even as the pain subsided and my toe was clearly healing. And looking back at my HR data, I can see it actually started to rise at the beginning of July, about two weeks before I broke my toe, so it’s not solely influenced by my broken toe.

As a result of these HR increases (that are noticeable and bothersome because I’m also not sleeping well at night and I physically feel the higher HR during the day), and the ongoing dry/gritty eyes, I suspected that the cause of my “subclinical hyperthyroidism” was Graves’ disease.

I’ve seen estimates that ~30% of people with Graves’ disease have what is called “Graves’ orbitopathy” (and other estimates suggest 20-50%, like this one), so the combination of my ongoing eye symptoms and the low TSH suggested that further lab work assessing various thyroid antibody levels would be able to confirm whether Graves’ disease was the likely source of the subclinical hyperthyroidism.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised during my virtual visit that my endocrinologist ordered additional labs (repeat of T4 and TSH; adding in T3, TPO antibodies, and TSI (Thyroid Stimulating Immunoglobulin), Thyrotropin Receptor Ab, and Thyroglobulin Ab). Treatment plan, if any, would be based on these results.

I managed to get in that (Friday) afternoon for the repeat lab work, and my results started trickling in by the time I woke up Saturday morning. First, T3, T4, TPO, and TSH came back. T4 was still normal; as I expected, T3 was also normal. TPO antibodies were high, as expected, TSH was still low, as I expected. Saturday night, Thyroglobulin Ab came back high, as expected. Monday, TSI came back high, as expected. Tuesday, my last test result of Thyrotropin Receptor Ab came back, also high as expected.

The summary was: all antibodies high; TSH low; T3/T4 normal.

My endocrinologist messages me Tuesday afternoon confirming mild Graves’ disease with subclinical hyperthyroidism.

The challenge is that I have normal T3/T4 levels. If those were high, we’d treat based on those levels and use those levels coming back into normal range and any change in antibody levels to assess that things were going well.

But the guidelines for subclinical hyperthyroidism don’t really indicate treatment (except on an individual level based on age, other conditions, or undetectable TSH <0.1, as I mentioned).

However, from what I’ve read, the “eye stuff” seems to be driven not by thyroid levels but by the presence of the increased thyroid antibodies. Treatment would possibly bring down the thyroid antibody levels, which might help with the eye disease progression. But not a guarantee. So my doctor left it up to me to decide whether to treat it or not.

Given the ongoing presence of active eye disease (I haven’t been able to wear my contacts for two weeks right now due to swelling/pain in the eyes, plus itching and redness), and the bothersome heart rate feeling, I have decided to try antithyroid medication. I’ll be on a relatively low dose of an “antithyroid” drug, again with the goal of trying to reduce my antibody levels.

This is why I ended up deciding to write this blog post after all: I have not been able to find any clear treatment guidelines for subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease with active eye symptoms (from Graves’ orbitopathy). The literature does suggest that treatment to reduce thyroid antibodies even with in-range T3 and T4, targeting a return to normal TSH levels, may be helpful in reducing Graves’ orbitopathy symptoms. This isn’t well known/established enough to have been documented in treatment guidelines, but does seem to occur in many people who are treated.

So hopefully, anyone else with low TSH and high antibodies suggesting Graves’ disease but normal T3 and T4 levels that suggests subclinical hyperthyroidism and also has other symptoms (whether that’s heart rate or other common hyperthyroid symptoms like increased sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, heat intolerance, sleep disturbances) that are bothersome, now have an example of what I chose, given my situation as described above.

I also thought sharing my question list at different stages for my endocrinologist would be helpful. After I saw that I had low TSH and in range T4, and suspected this meant I had subclinical hyperthyroidism from Graves’ disease, given my eye symptoms, the questions I asked my endocrinologist were:

  • What additional lab work did we need to confirm subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease as the cause? What additional information or lab work would give us a treatment plan?As expected, he repeated TSH and T4, added T3 and TPO and the other antibody tests described above: TGAb, TRab, TSI. This would confirm subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ as the likely source.

     

  • Do I need treatment, since the guidelines generally don’t suggest treatment with normal T3/T4 and TSH between .1 and .4?Initially he suggested treatment would be an option, and after the repeat and expanded lab work, left it up to my decision. Given my symptoms that are actively bothering me, I’m choosing to try low-dose antithyroid medication.
  • For hyperthyroidism treatment, beta blockers seem to be part of treatment guidelines for managing symptoms in the short-term, since it takes ~6 weeks for antithyroid medication to show up in lab results. Were beta blockers warranted in my case?My endo typically doesn’t like to prescribe beta blockers unless there are extreme symptoms. He gave an example of someone with a T4 (I think) around 10 and extreme visible shaking. He left it up to me, but his opinion was the side effects, such as lethargy, would outweigh the benefits for mild symptoms, so it is better to treat the root cause. I agreed and did not ask for a beta blocker prescription.
  • I also asked if a DEXA scan was warranted to check my bone density.I haven’t had one in over a decade, and celiac and EPI and now Graves’ puts me at possible higher risk of bone density issues. And, since the presence of osteoporosis changes the treatment recommendation for subclinical hyperthyroidism, we agreed it was worth doing. I have it scheduled in a few weeks. My last one over a decade ago was normal.
  • Finally, I asked about my eye care, now that I have a known eye thing (Graves’ orbitopathy). Do I need to get referred to an ophthalmologist, or can I continue to see my existing optometrist for annual eye care (including diabetes eye exam) and contact fittings?My endocrinologist suggested that my optometrist can continue to manage my eye care, unless something changes significantly. Ophthalmologists, based on his response and my research, seem to handle severe eye disease treatments that aren’t likely warranted for me. I’ll probably need supportive eye care (e.g. gel drops, regular eye drops) for now. However, I’m planning to send a note to my eye doctor and flag that I want to talk about Graves’ eye things and a plan for monitoring severity and progression over time, and check whether she’s comfortable supporting me or if she prefers to refer me to someone else. 


After my repeat labs came back, my endocrinologist messaged me to confirm things and ask if I wanted him to send in the prescription as previously discussed. This exchanged answered the additional questions I had at this time:

  • What is the treatment timeline? How soon might I see results?He suggested repeat labs at the 2 month mark. Ideally, we’d see reduced antibody levels and my hope is that my eye symptoms will have also improved and/or I won’t have any additional weeks without being able to wear contacts.

    Given I have a clear impact to my heart rate, I’m hypothesizing that I might see changes to the trend in my heart rate data sooner than 6 weeks – 2 months, so that’ll be interesting to track!

     

  • Side effects?Common side effects with antithyroid drugs are rash/allergic type response, headache, or agranulocytosis. He told me to discontinue and contact the office if I had any of those symptoms.

    He didn’t go into detail, but I’ve read about agranulocytosis and it seems like if you have a fever and strong sore throat, you need to discontinue and probably will have blood work ordered to make sure your white blood cell counts are ok. Don’t google too much on this one as it sounds scary, but it’s also rare – less than 2% of people seem to have this.

     

  • The only question he didn’t answer was whether it makes a difference in efficacy to take the antithyroid drugs at night or in the morning.Probably, the answer is it doesn’t matter, and whatever time you can take it consistently is best. However, I want to optimize and get the best results from taking this, so I’m bummed that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence (let me know if you’ve found anything in medical literature) suggesting how to optimize timing of it. 

So that’s where I am today.

I now have type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and Graves’ disease (contributing to subclinical hyperthyroidism). It’s possible that we can fix the subclinical hyperthyroidism, and that I won’t need to be on antithyroid medication long-term. However, the data for those of us with Graves’ orbitopathy isn’t super optimistic compared to those without Graves’ eye disease; so I am managing my expectations that managing my thyroid antibody and hormone levels will be an ongoing thing that I get to do along with managing insulin and blood sugars and managing pancreatic enzymes. We’ll see!