Insulin pumps: Great devices, but you still have to press the button

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In this issue of the Journal, Millstein et al provide an elegant, practical, and up-to-date review of insulin pump therapy (also known as continuous subcutaneous insulin infusion), emphasizing its benefits and comparing it with multiple daily insulin injections.1

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While insulin pumps make the lives of many patients much easier, we should be careful when generalizing their indications. These devices have been with us for 4 decades, during which they have progressively been made more precise and more intelligent—and smaller. The technology may be attractive to some patients but undesirable to others (Table 1).

Advantages and disadvantages of both types of insulin therapy

Many healthcare providers are unfamiliar with pump technology, and some are intimidated by it because it involves a dynamic device-user interface that is more complex than that of other concealed programmed devices such as pacemakers. Inadequate glycemic management is complex and may result from factors such as fear of hypoglycemia, difficulty with insulin dose adjustment, and poor math skills.2

Unfortunately, some patients are given a pump without proper screening and education, and they tend to call the pump manufacturer’s help line or their provider often for help with technical problems. Selecting the right patient for this technology is more important than the converse.

Indications for an insulin pump vary by country. In some countries, a pump is started as soon as type 1 diabetes is diagnosed. In the United States, the indications are very rigorous and restrictive, especially for patients with type 2 diabetes, in whom a lack of endogenous insulin production must first be proved.

There is no question that a pump should be offered to every patient with type 1 diabetes who demonstrates good motivation to improve his or her glucose control, but only after a rigorous education program. This option is too costly to be tried just to see if the patient likes it.


A worrisome aspect of continuous subcutaneous insulin infusion at a population level is a lack of information on the root causes of adverse events (diabetic ketoacidosis or severe hypoglycemia) in patients who use it. These events may be serious and sometimes even fatal.

Outside of a controlled environment, it is difficult to ascertain whether an adverse event represents device error or user error, since pumps contain different components (electronic, mechanical, and pharmacologic) that interface with the human user.3 How adverse events are tracked or categorized is unclear, and given the risks associated with this technology, better postmarketing evaluation is needed. Furthermore, we do not know if the precision of insulin delivery decreases over the life of a pump.

While most pump manufacturers have good customer service and make every effort to provide the patient with a replacement pump in case of failure, we do not know if anyone maintains a database of such failures or adverse events, and if those failures can be analyzed to improve safety.3

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