Accuracy matters most in a glucometer
If you've been diagnosed with diabetes, checking your blood sugar levels is key to managing the disease and maintaining your health. Even if you don't have diabetes, your doctor may ask you to check your blood sugar periodically if you have a history of the disease or have borderline high numbers. There are other reasons for checking your blood sugar, too; for example, glucometers are popular with those who are following special diets -- sugar detoxes, low-carb and ketogenic diets in particular.
Accuracy and consistency (also called repeatability) are the top features to look for in a glucometer. These should take priority over the fancy bells and whistles you can find on some modern blood glucose meters. For diabetics, getting the readings right -- or at least within a reasonable range -- can be a matter of life and death, or at least the ability to consistently feel good.
We look beyond FDA and ISO compliance. Just because a home blood glucose meter meets the current federal standards doesn't mean it's the best; as of February 2016, those standards allow the devices to be wrong by as much as 20 percent. To make our choices, we look at what independent testing organization and clinical trials have revealed about these glucose monitors' accuracy and dependability, plus user feedback about how well they perform in the real world.
(The Food and Drug Administration has, for several years, been pushing for stronger international standards for glucose meters. FDA officials say they may switch to higher federal standards on their own if necessary, but it hasn't happened yet. Some clinical trials, however, have begun evaluating glucometers against ISO standard 15197:2013, which requires greater, more consistent accuracy than the 2003 standard previously used for clinical trials. We will continually update the FDA's progress in subsequent reports.)
Glucometer technology has come a long way in recent years and continues to improve, with smart phone compatibility, more storage options and even less blood necessary for a reading.
Regardless of technology, ease of use is an important consideration. Experts say this is not just for your convenience. The more complicated the process gets, the greater the chance that you'll get errors. Even with the simplest of meters, though, you'll still want to pay careful attention to the manufacturer's directions to ensure the most accurate results.
If you're sight-impaired -- a common complication of diabetes -- a talking glucose meter can literally talk you through the entire process. A good talking meter lets those with limited sight do everything -- from setup to testing and recording your results -- without assistance.
The cost of the meter doesn't always represent the long-term investment. Even if your insurance company covers the cost of diabetic supplies, be aware that it may only cover a limited selection of brands -- so check your coverage before you buy. If you don't have insurance, you can often get a free meter and a sample batch of test strips from your doctor or even directly from the meter manufacturer.
Watch out for the cost of test strips, though -- they are the greatest overall expense in your diabetic testing kit. The test strips that accompany the monitors in this report range from $8 to $50 or more per box of 50. If you test your blood sugar four times a day, that supply will last you a little less than two weeks. With more expensive brands, the cost of test strips can easily clear $1,500 per year.
The good news is that some of the manufacturers with more expensive test strips offer co-pay programs to help bring the cost per box of 50 down to about $15. These include Abbott Diabetes Care and Roche Diagnostics, which manufacture two of the highest-performing meters in this report.
Some drugs and glucose meters can be a deadly combination. Certain drugs can cause errors with glucose meters that use a specific type of test-strip technology (known as GDH-PQQ), resulting in dangerous -- potentially fatal -- false readings. The FDA has issued an alert, and you should always consult with your care provider if you have any questions or concerns.
How we found the best glucometers
There are a good number of expert evaluations as well as clinical trials of home blood glucose monitors. These usually measure accuracy, ease of use and convenience. At retail sites like Amazon.com and Walmart.com, users of glucose meters -- sometimes hundreds -- weigh in with helpful real-world information about using these monitors.
Finally, if you're dealing with diabetes, your doctor may direct you to check your blood pressure regularly as well. We've researched expert sources and consumer reviews to bring you a full report on the best blood pressure monitors, as well as another useful tool for your home medical kit, best digital thermometers.