Why Virtual Diabetes Programs Should Be the New Normal

Healthwise Communications Team

Diabetes prevention programs (DPPs) and self-management programs (SMPs) play a critical role in helping people with diabetes. But the coronavirus outbreak has postponed or even halted the in-person classes and appointments that traditionally made up a vast majority of these strategies. Now, however, technology is providing a new path to reach patients during the pandemic: online digital diabetes programs.

These virtual suites can do more than overcome the obstacles of quarantining and social distancing. They also allow people in rural and underserved areas to access health care more easily than ever.

No one can say definitively how long the coronavirus will impact our communities, but one thing’s for sure: Digital health programs are here to stay.

Keep Patients With Diabetes Healthy and Safe During the Pandemic

Back in April, just months after the pandemic hit the United States, 69% of patients with chronic diseases—including diabetes—told an InCrowd survey that the coronavirus had already impacted their ability to manage their conditions.1 Loss of income, appointment cancellations, and quarantine made it even more difficult than usual for people with diabetes to stay healthy.

For people with diabetes or other underlying conditions, the coronavirus poses a much greater threat than it does for healthy individuals. Research shows that people with poorly managed diabetes are more likely to experience severe COVID-19 symptoms, and their chances of dying from coronavirus are up to 50% higher than for people who don’t have diabetes.2

“We do not believe that people with diabetes are more likely to get COVID-19 than the general population. They are, however, at risk for more severe outcomes, based on what we have been learning so far from research studies,” says Dr. Janaki Vakharia, MD, clinical fellow in the Endocrinology Division at Mass General.3

"Studies have reported that patients with well-controlled diabetes who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 have a higher rate of survival. Better controlled diabetes is also associated with lower markers of inflammation, which may explain this better rate.”

Managing diabetes through virtual prevention programs and self-management programs is now more critical than ever.


Overcome Insufficient Access to In-Person Programs and Providers

A shocking number of Americans live in regions designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs, meaning they lack sufficient access to health care.4 The shortages are sometimes geographic, such as in rural populations, but they can also occur in cities that have grown faster than their current pool of providers. Patients living in an HPSA often face long commutes to reach a doctor’s office or long wait times to book an appointment.

As of September 2020, more than 81 million people live in approximately 7,200 HPSAs across the United States, which makes it difficult for 1 out of 4 Americans to access the health care they need.5

  • 33 million of these people lack easy geographic access to clinicians.
  • 47 million live in a heavily populated area with too few physicians.

In many cases, a virtual program can overcome many of the obstacles presented by living in these areas. For example, an online format completely eliminates the distance factor for rural populations. And providers in underserved urban areas can reach more patients with a digital program than they could through in-person visits.


Making the Case for Virtual Diabetes Programs

Because diabetes relies heavily on decisions that patients make, the condition lends itself particularly well to a digital self-management program. A study performed in 2020 showed that participants in one online DPP lost an average of 10.4 pounds—4.3% of their body weight—over the course of a year.6

Online interactions can’t completely replace in-person appointments—a clinician still needs to meet with each patient periodically. But by providing health education and tracking online, health systems can support both their patients and their staff in multiple ways:

  • Much of the patient education can be delivered virtually, allowing for fewer or shorter appointments.
  • Patients who self-manage are less likely to be admitted or unnecessarily readmitted to the hospital.
  • Face-to-face time in the clinic can be used to address the specific needs of each patient, rather than going over the universal instructions most people with diabetes receive.
  • Tools that track patient engagement and progress allow doctors to decide who needs more hands-on care and who can continue to largely self-manage.

A robust digital diabetes program should include a suite of options targeted toward different types of diabetes and where patients are in their journey.

  • Diabetes type 1: An in-depth introduction or refresher on type 1 diabetes with information about food, activity, insulin, glucose monitoring, and social aspects
  • Intro to type 2 diabetes: An overview of treatment options and management for patients newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
  • Diabetes type 2, A1c > 8: A more targeted approach for patients with poorly managed type 2 diabetes that also discusses insulin options and the importance of treatment
  • Gestational diabetes: A short-term plan for pregnant women with gestational diabetes
  • Prediabetes: An overview of type 2 diabetes and how to avoid it, for patients determined to be at risk

To learn more specifics about how digital programs work and how they can help you reach your diabetes population, visit our Diabetes Suite web page. And read our free eBrief, “New Digital Health Programs to Future-Proof Your Hospital System” for a broader view of how digital health programs can benefit other service lines as well. Discover the possibilities virtual suites can offer your health system, your staff, and—most importantly—the patients you serve.

1 https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/docs-could-face-looming-health-crisis-as-covid-disrupts-care-for-chronically-ill
2 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587(20)30152-2/fulltext
3 https://www.massgeneral.org/news/coronavirus/diabetes-and-covid-19
4 https://bhw.hrsa.gov/shortage-designation/hpsas
5 Designated Health Professional Shortage Areas Statistics. Fourth Quarter of Fiscal Year 2020 Designated HPSA Quarterly Summary [PDF]. (2020, October 1). Bureau of Health Workforce, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
6 https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/tech/lark-health-study-shows-impact-diabetes-prevention-program-underserved-population