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November 12, 2021

Raising Diabetes Awareness Starts with Testing

By David Stein

Nearly 3% of adults don’t know they have this serious medical condition

With November being National Diabetes Month, it’s a good time to take stock of the toll this disease takes on our country.

More than 34 million Americans have diabetes, and in 2017, the total estimated cost of diagnosed diabetes was $327 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s even more alarming is that 7.3 million adults don’t know they have this serious medical condition.

This represents 2.8% of adults, according to the 2020 National Diabetes Statistics Report. Sadly, the prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes has not changed since 2006. Fifteen years ago, a federal study also found about 2.8% of adults were unaware they had diabetes.

The data are shocking because diabetes is not some rare disease. A simple blood test — the hemoglobin A1C test — is commonly used to diagnose type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

The lack of diagnosis is a systemic failure. It speaks to the need for more convenient and accessible primary care and blood testing. Easier, more affordable testing is the first step.

People also need help deciphering their lab results to make informed decisions about their health, especially now that more healthcare institutions are sharing test results in online patient portals. One study found that 63% of patients said they received no explanatory interpretation with their lab results. Further, sending lab results uninterpreted or with no clinician note left patients confused or experiencing negative feelings.

The data reveal it’s time to flip the paradigm on blood testing. Testing usually occurs after an annual wellness visit, with the results going to the provider a few days later. Patients then have to schedule a follow-up doctor’s appointment to discuss any unusual results face-to-face.

Wouldn’t it be better for patients if test results were easier to understand and already in hand at the time of their wellness visit so they can be discussed with the doctor? Simply offering better access to vital health information is not enough. You shouldn’t need a dictionary of medical terms to read your lab results.

Getting a blood test and understanding the results is critically important, as diabetes doesn’t happen overnight. There are warning signs in the blood, as well as a host of other physical symptoms. The American Diabetes Association even created a term for the condition when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes: prediabetes. It was an effort to grow awareness and make doctors and the public take elevated glucose levels more seriously. More than 88 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes – a condition that if left unchecked often leads to type 2 diabetes.

The CDC and the American Medical Association have teamed up with Ad Council to raise awareness of prediabetes. Why? Because lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. These changes include losing weight, increasing physical activity, and eating more plant foods. And it’s never too late to start.

The increase of diabetes in the U.S. — from 6.5% of the population to 10.5% — is so serious that medical experts now recommend screening for diabetes for people who are overweight or obese begin at 35 years of age, instead of 40.

But here’s the rub. People will only follow this recommendation if getting a blood test is convenient, and they can discuss the results with a physician or other primary care provider. Even better if they can access and act on the information directly.

People can learn more about their risk for prediabetes through this online risk assessment.