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Technology offers help (and hope) for diabetics hit hard by the pandemic

The pandemic has devastated many people living with diabetes.

Not only have individuals with Type 2 diabetes been among those at highest risk of severe disease or death from COVID-19, but studies also show the ongoing crisis, with the accompanying isolation of lockdowns, has taken a terrible toll on even diabetics who avoided acute infections.

On World Diabetes Day this 14 November,  I'd like you to consider how pandemic-related disruptions contributed to worsening of diabetic individuals' health, as people neglected their diets, put off physical exercise or even rationed their use of insulin. And more optimistically, I'd also like you to consider how we can start to remedy this, so our society is more resilient for the next calamity.

First the troubling facts: Death rates among diabetics during the pandemic have been 50% higher than historical trends, a recent study shows. That's more than twice the rate observed in the overall population. Equally shocking, up to 80% of excess deaths among diabetics may not have been directly from COVID-19.

Collateral damage

This last painful statistic underscores how the pandemic crashed like a tsunami over the lives of even people who never caught the virus, as they struggled, sometimes unsuccessfully, to maintain patterns that helped them live with diabetes.

This is how John Schoonbee, Swiss Re's chief medical officer, puts it: "We know the pandemic kept people from visiting the doctor. The number of medical tests performed, for everything from routine check-ups to screening for cancer, plunged as the pandemic wreaked havoc on medical services."

"And diabetics who are vulnerable to disruptions to both daily life routines as well as regular medical supervision they rely on to control their disease have been among the hardest hit," he said. "Mental health stress due to pandemic has also led many to worse dietary habits, exacerbating their disease states."

Diabetes is such a complex disease. Even in normal times, it's often overwhelming for people regardless of age to manage their blood sugar, blood pressure and diet. Even those not suffering from Type 2 diabetes must mind what they eat and control their weight, since obesity is a major risk factor for developing the disease.

In stressful times like the pandemic, keeping good habits like these in focus is even tougher. That's where technology and insurers can step in.

Technology can help

Numerous apps, including wearables, offer opportunities for people with diabetes to gain, or regain control of their disease, manage it, and, in many truly inspiring cases, reverse its course. Under a doctor's careful guidance, such apps help people reduce or halt the use of expensive medications.

Swiss Re has partnered with the Gro Health platform to help people achieve health goals by encouraging and monitoring behavioral changes to address diabetes, obesity and a range of other metabolic risks. We think it’s a great tool, because results from people who have used it have been clinically validated. Other Gro Health partners include health care groups and universities in Britain, Germany and Canada.

Technology solutions from many other groups are available, too. The American Diabetes Association is among leading voices that have said mobile health apps can bolster medical practice, while also recognizing they are not a replacement for a health care provider.

The point is, the staggering dimensions of diabetes – it afflicts some 500 million adults globally, with treatment costs exceeding USD 1.3 trillion annually and rising – mean it's going to take concerted effort on many fronts, the private sector and government included, to reverse this trend.

Technology and insurers have important role to play.

Within our reach

The pandemic has made our task more difficult, but not impossible. We can do this.

Finally, I would like to point out how Swiss Re has identified modifiable behaviors – we call them "Big Six" lifestyle factors – that everybody, including diabetes sufferers, can use to initiate healthy living patterns to reduce the risk of many chronic conditions. These behaviors emphasize good mental health, addressing environmental factors, physical activity, sleeping and eating properly and quitting or trimming substance use.

Experts tell us these behaviors reduce diabetes risks, in the process making a significant contribution to helping people live longer, healthier lives. Using technology to adhere to them provides an added boost, helping us stick to what might otherwise seem like a rigorous regimen, especially in times of crisis.

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