Is too much information a bad thing? – by Andy Broomhead

These days, data and information is all around us – we’re bombarded with over 100 messages and pieces of information every day and we work subconsciously to filter out the irrelevant ones and focus on those the matter to us as individuals.
My academic and professional background has always meant I’ve spent a lot of time looking at data to understand problems or improve the way things work. My hobby as a runner means I spend time analysing my pace, distance and predicted times. And my entire life with diabetes is a constant stream of information that I use on an hourly basis to try and keep my health in as good a position as possible.

There’s the obvious information such as carbohydrate amounts and blood glucose test results, the daily calorie calculations that (theoretically) help me maintain a healthyish weight, and there’s those annual figures about cholesterol, kidney function and a whole host of other things that I pay a little less attention to as I see them a lot less often. That’s probably the majority of the important information I filter out and concentrate on.

My last HbA1c result was 54 (or 7.1% for those people like me who still use imperial…) so I’d like to think that between my pump, my bordering-on-obsessive amount of running and my trusty BG tester, I’m doing pretty well. But could I do better with more information?

Allow me to segue back to running for a moment… Over the last two years I’ve run over 1500 miles and I’ve managed to set myself new personal bests at a 5km, 10km, Half Marathon and Marathon distance, though I suspect Mo Farah shouldn’t be concerning himself too much just yet. I did all that with a watch that showed me some basic information about how far I’d run, my current pace, and my average pace over the total distance. As with managing diabetes, I can underpin my running improvements with a fair amount of science and analysis that’s helped me improve my performance. Given my background, I take a fair amount of comfort in knowing there are things I can analyse and monitor to help me improve.

Last week I decided that I needed a new running watch that would give me more performance data which in turn should help me improve further. Broadly speaking, my theory is that I can run fewer miles in 2016, but do so more efficiently (i.e. faster). I believe that by being able to monitor more of the variables that go into more efficient running, I can improve those aspects and hopefully go even faster next year.

So what does this have to do with diabetes management? Well I’ve long considered that by upgrading my BG tester to a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM), I’d have more information available to me which will allow me to better understand how diabetes affects me, and give me the tools to manage it more effectively. The advent of social media gives us the opportunity to see how other people use these devices and see their successes and setbacks whilst doing so.

I think the key to managing diabetes (or running faster if you prefer the metaphor) is to understand the data you’ve got and making sure that you interpret and use it correctly to make improvements. I’ve seen people perform basal testing with a CGM to understand how their bodies deal with diabetes and then make careful, measured adjustments to bring about more stable BG levels over a sustained period of time. I’ve also seen people react to rising blood glucose levels by immediately increasing basal rates to combat the symptoms rather than using the information presented to them to understand the actual problem.

I think the same can apply to ‘upgrading’ from insulin pens to pump therapy – if you understand the information you get, and the tools you have at your disposal, then that should really be beneficial in the long run. Just assuming that newer technology will fix things automatically is inherently risky. It’s our responsibility to understand how to use the tools and information available to us.

So we return to the title of this month’s post – is too much information a bad thing? With diabetes, there are a lot of things that affect blood glucose that we can’t control (temperature, illness, individual responses to foods…) and so we must remain mindful of how these things affect the data that we see and remember what lies within our control. I think we also need to remember that even with more information, we can’t replicate the effect of a fully functioning pancreas because of the inherent limitations of how insulin therapy works.

Instinctively, I would say that the more information you can get to build a more complete picture of something you’re trying to understand and improve can only be a good thing. The important caveat is to make sure that the extra information is useful and that you fundamentally understand the value of it. You could have all the information in the world, but if you don’t understand what it means, it has no value to you and can mean you end up staring at a wall of numbers and you’re no better off. Understanding the data you have can be just as good as getting more information.

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