Diabetes: The Quiet Epidemic That Is Not Going Away

April 13, 2020

Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, mostly with the type 2 variety linked with being overweight or obese.

When most people think about epidemics, they think of Ebola, SARS, and now, especially, the new coronavirus. But until COVID-19, when healthcare executives had thought about epidemics, they should also be thinking about diabetes, because it is growing, expensive - and deadly. 

The impact of diabetes on the lives of patients can be absolutely devastating. It is the underlying cause of serious complications, such as heart disease and stroke. Many people with diabetes are afflicted with chronic pain; it is also the leading cause of kidney failure, blindness, and amputations. Diabetes, and the complications resulting from it, ranks third behind heart disease and cancer as a cause of death in this country.  

Over 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, mostly with the type 2 variety that is linked with being overweight or obese. Another 88 million Americans have prediabetes: They have blood sugar levels and other risk factors that could put them on the road to having full-blown diabetes. Nearly $250 billion is spent on healthcare costs related to diabetes, with an average medical expenditure of $15,000 per person with the disease. As far as drug costs are concerned, diabetes is the most expensive traditional therapeutic class on a per-member, per-month basis. 

Related: 21st Century-Style Diabetes Disease Management: Coaches and Tech-Enabled

The causal factors of the type 2 diabetes epidemic are well characterized: poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and aging. Diabetes also occurs more frequently in some groups because of social determinants of health, such as unsafe neighborhoods with a lack of access to recreation.

The good news is that managed healthcare can have a significant impact on all aspects of diabetes prevention and management. Through analytics and health risk appraisals, health plans can identify members with diabetes and those who are prediabetic. Focused disease management programs, combined with value-based provider contracts, can encourage engagement of members and incentivize providers to improve outcomes. Health plans can help by, among other things,  covering smartpens that can monitor injections. The same goes for stick-free glucose monitoring, which improves adherence to blood testing and insulin management. Health plans are also well positioned to work with community organizations to support efforts to educate people about proper nutrition, exercise habits, and weight management. 

When and how is difficult to say, but COVID-19 will recede. Diabetes will not. It will continue to grow as our society struggles to control the impacts of poor lifestyle habits. However, managed healthcare plans continue to play an important part in ensuring that members receive the most impactful information and care possible to manage and ultimately stop this epidemic.

Don Hall, MPH, and Sherry Rohlfing are principals of DeltaSigma, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic problem solving for managed care.

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