Magic Technology Cures for Diabetes and Obesity

When people are desperate, magical thinking abounds. Even at the New York Times. Right now, you can read about how Silicon Valley technology is going to “tackle weight loss and diabetes with video chats.” With the help of mock apple cobbler and veggie omelets, an accountant and her husband have lost 120 pounds and avoided taking insulin. The gathering storm of a diabetes and obesity epidemic is definitely sparking action.

Action is a good thing. Magical thinking is, at best, a mixed blessing.

A Little Tech Magic and a Lotta PR

Underneath public relations puffery in the Times, you’ll find the application of digital technology to extend the reach of evidence-based obesity care. The tech start-up hyped by the TimesVirta Health – is simply applying well-proven principles of intensive behavioral therapy for obesity. It’s using telemedicine to deliver it. Robin and Wayne Collier (the accountant and her husband) get video chats with physicians skilled in obesity and diabetes care.

Virta has the noble goal of reversing diabetes in a hundred million people. If its puffery overcomes the barriers to evidence-based care for obesity and diabetes, that will be great.

Caution Warranted

But Virta better be careful. The study it pitched to the Times is an open-label, uncontrolled study of its program. Virta published it in a new, open-access journal that’s not indexed by Pub Med. The claims about “reversing diabetes” don’t have rigorous controlled studies to support them.

But worst of all, Virta seems to be positioning its telemedicine clinic against metabolic surgery for “reversing diabetes.” In the case of bariatric and metabolic surgery, the data on producing and maintaining remissions of diabetes is pretty strong. And evidence suggests that surgery is quite a bit more effective than medical management alone.

Virta Health seems to have a lot to offer. These brave innovators also have a lot of work to do. We hope they don’t trip over some unnecessarily inflated claims before they have data to back it up.

Click here to read more from the New York Times, here to read Virta’s uncontrolled study. For more on telemedicine in obesity care, click here, and click here for more on telemedicine in diabetes care.

Magic! Photograph © Xava du / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


April 18, 2017