Digital Diabetes Solutions

With employers footing a major part of the nation's massive diabetes-driven $300 billion medical bill, new digitally based workplace programs are showing progress in managing those costs and improving employees' lives.

By Tom Starner

What if an employer could cut in half the amount of prescription drugs used to treat employees' diabetes?

The obvious, extremely potent benefit of that scenario would be the dramatic improvement of affected employees' lives. And then there is the obvious cost saving, which would add up quickly for employers trying to stem the ever-rising price of healthcare benefits.

Human resource leaders at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., are finding out what it's like to experience such a dramatic change within its workforce.

Purdue is much like other employers affected by the costs involved in managing employees' diabetes, with more than 1,800 known Purdue employees and their family members living with the disease, leading to millions of dollars in medical costs. Since early 2016, however, a subgroup of Purdue employees has been enrolled in a specialized program from San Francisco-based Virta Health in an effort to treat their type 2 diabetes while also saving money and living healthier lives.

The early results, according to Purdue's HR department, show the program's promise.

"Virta did the work for us and kept our employees engaged, and the results have been incredibly promising," says Denny Darrow, Purdue's vice president of HR. "And based upon early success, we are now making Virta available to all eligible people with type 2 diabetes in our employee and dependent populations."

Diabetes is among the top five chronic health conditions affecting Purdue employees, Darrow says, adding that incorporating Virta -- which is delivered online -- into the diabetes outreach that already exists at the university provides another avenue for those living with type 2 diabetes (or for those who have been identified as in the "pre-diabetes" segment) to get assistance.

"Our hope is that it is successful for all affected Purdue employees as well," he says. "For those who choose to participate and are successful, research shows that, not only will their overall health improve, but there should be savings on healthcare medications."

On a more personal level, one Purdue employee who participated in the program calls it a lifesaver.

Kim Canine, a housing business process analyst at Purdue, lived with type 2 diabetes for two years and was on diabetes and blood pressure medication when she enrolled in the program. A year later, she's been able to stop taking all her old medications. 

"I have tried everything to get my sugar and weight under control, and nothing worked," Canine says. "I was concerned about losing time with my family due to this disease. I can confidently say that Virta has saved my life, and it has also helped my mother and brother.

"The food is not a focus anymore in my life," she adds. "It's my friends, it's my family, it's my work. It's being outside and enjoying life again."

According to Mike Payne, head of commercial and policy at Virta Health, there is an estimated $300 billion spent annually on diabetes and pre-diabetes management nationwide. Among the U.S. workforce, 29 million people suffer from type 2 diabetes and 86 million from pre-diabetes -- an average of one in 10 employees or dependents.

The Virta-Purdue partnership comes on the heels of Virta's peer-reviewed study in which the firm's approach was successful in lowering A1c levels (the primary blood glucose metric) below the diabetic range in more than 50 percent of trial participants with type 2 diabetes. To do that, the online clinic offers physician supervision and a dedicated health coach, digital tracking tools and an app, and a personalized nutrition and care plan.

For people with type 2 diabetes, Payne says, achieving blood sugar value reductions to below the diabetic range -- rather than simply managing the disease -- leads to more energy and better health. He says that employers in industries such as healthcare, education, government, transportation, utilities and manufacturing have large diabetic populations within their workforces.

"We are seeing much interest from HR leaders who understand that not all great healthcare comes from health plans alone," he says, adding that Virta's calculations find that employers can see a break-even ROI in year one or, at the latest, year two.

Apart from comprehensive programs such as Virta's offering, disease management using digital solutions can also have a positive impact. For example, a new study from the Northeast Business Group on Health, finds that digital diabetes solutions can make a difference.

While it's not a panacea, digital solutions can offer employers valuable assistance in combatting diabetes among their populations, says Jeremy Nobel, executive Director of NEBGH's Solutions Center, which conducted the Digital Diabetes Solutions in Action: An Opportunity Study.

"Diabetes remains a major concern for employers because of direct cost of treatment, as well as impairment in employee performance," Nobel says, adding that NEBGH research has confirmed that employers are very receptive to the potential benefits of digital diabetes care and see it as part of a "next generation" approach to supporting employees and dependents suffering from the disease.

Adding a digital component to diabetes care coordination offers significant advantages in better engaging patients in their care, he says, as well as proving an important stream of digital data that can be used to optimize therapy and assist patients in meeting treatment goals.

"It's too early for long-term measurable results . . . but based on observations we would encourage other employers to consider whether implementing a digital health solution -- for managing diabetes or other chronic illnesses -- might benefit their employee populations."

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May 3, 2017
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