One of every five health care dollars is spent on caring for someone with diabetes. Employers bear a large portion of this burden through health care premiums that continue to rise. Although these numbers are daunting, in many cases, diabetes is a preventable disease. Working to prevent diabetes is our biggest opportunity to control health care spending.
The Institute for Alternative Futures, using Centers for Disease Control data, predicts that by 2025 the number of Washingtonians living with diagnosed and undiagnosed diabetes will increase by 88 percent. And the medical and societal costs of diabetes will grow to $9.6 billion—a 92 percent increase from 2010 figures.
Diabetes is a group of diseases characterized by the presence of too much glucose in the blood. This occurs when a person’s body is unable to use or produce insulin, a hormone that is key to the regulation of blood sugar levels in our bodies.
Diabetes is a life-altering disease that changes an individual’s day-to-day living. Those with diabetes must consider what and how much they eat, and how and when to exercise. Management of the disease can include frequent monitoring of blood sugar, insulin injections and medications. People with diabetes must also monitor and control their cholesterol and blood pressure, be alert to anxiety and depression, and take special care of their feet. Not only is diabetes management itself expensive, but diabetes can also lead to serious complications, including blindness, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, lower-extremity amputations and premature death.
Employers should be alert to the impact diabetes has on productivity. In 2007, diabetes was estimated to account for 15 million absent-work days, as well as considerable losses in productivity. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates that the medical expenditures of people diagnosed with diabetes are approximately 2.3 times higher than those without diabetes.
What can employers do to help stem the rising rate of diabetes and, in turn, lower their health care premiums? Employers should hold health fairs, offer workplace diabetes screenings, make educational pamphlets available and offer healthful snacks and organized walking groups during breaks and at lunchtime. Firms also can take part in the ADA’s fundraising walks to support resarch and people living with diabetes.
There are many resources for diabetes education in King County. One that directly targets employers is the Living Well Alliance, a partnership among Pacific Medical Centers, Premera Blue Cross and the American Diabetes Association to bring diabetes education into the workplace. The program offers a diabetes prevention and management presentation as well as on-site diabetes screenings at no cost to the employer or employee. It gives employers an opportunity to provide their employees with a valuable health service and empowers employers to take action against the rise in diabetes.
Diabetes shows no signs of slowing down, but with a concerted effort we can turn the epidemic around. If we each try to take the small steps described here, we can make a big impact on controlling this disease.
Rebecca Over, a board-certified endocrinologist practicing at Pacific Medical Centers, is medical leader of the Living Well Alliance.