How employers can help employees control their illness and help reduce costs Featured

8:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
How employers can help employees control their illness and help reduce costs

Nearly 26 million Americans suffer from diabetes, costing employers billions of dollars a year in direct and indirect costs. But many employers continue to ignore the problem, hoping that employees are dealing with it on their own.

“Diabetes costs employers an estimated $174 billion a year in unemployment, absenteeism and presenteeism,” says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc.

“Fifteen million work days are lost each year as a result of diabetes, with 120 million days of reduced performance and another 107 million days lost to unemployment disability.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about how employers can help employees control their diabetes and reduce costs not only for the employee but for the employer, as well.

What is diabetes, and what are its consequences?

Diabetes is a disease that causes the elevation of glucose levels in the blood. This is a result of the body failing to produce enough insulin or of cells failing to respond correctly to insulin that the pancreas produces. Because of that, glucose builds up in the blood, and the cells do not get the glucose they need.

With Type 1 diabetes, the body produces no insulin at all. With Type 2, the body fails to produce enough, or what it does produce does not work properly.

While diabetes is treatable, it is not curable. And if not properly controlled, it can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, retinal damage, chronic kidney failure, nerve damage, blindness and gangrene on the feet, which can lead to amputation.

Symptoms include frequent urination, disproportionate thirst, unexplained weight gain or loss, blurred vision, swollen gums and numbness in the extremities.

Who should be tested for diabetes?

It is recommended that adults ages 45 years and older without symptoms be screened for diabetes every three years. Diabetes can be diagnosed through a simple urine test, which can detect the presence of excess glucose. A follow-up blood test can confirm glucose levels. Early detection is critical, as the resulting treatment may reduce complications of diabetes.

Once someone has been diagnosed, what are the recommended tests?

The HbA1c test measures the amount of glycated hemoglobin in the blood. It measures blood sugar levels over several months. Abnormal results indicate that blood glucose levels have been above normal for weeks or months and are a good indication of how well the disease is being managed.

High blood pressure and high glucose levels can damage the kidneys’ filters, so a yearly kidney screening is also recommended. When the kidneys are damaged, proteins leak into the urine, and the urinary albumin test can detect leakage. The second test is a blood test to measure creatinine, a waste product. The results will indicate how well the kidneys are removing wastes from the blood.

LDL C cholesterol levels should also be measured to ensure they are being kept in check. A person with diabetes who is able to lower these levels can reduce cardiovascular complications 20 to 50 percent. Blood pressure should also be checked, as increased levels increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, eye problems and kidney disease.

Finally, vision should be screened every two years — more often if vision is abnormal — as diabetes can result in the tissue being pulled away from the eye lens. This can lead to blurred vision and, in severe cases, to blindness, but can be treated if diagnosed early.

Why should employers be concerned about employees suffering from diabetes?

With the number of people suffering from diabetes expected to reach 40 million by 2015, few employers will not be impacted.

Data show that those who control the disease and keep their blood sugar levels at a healthy level cost employers an average of $24 a month, while those who do not control their levels cost their employers $115 a month. In addition, men with diabetes miss an average of 11 days more per year than their healthy counterparts, while women miss an average of 8.7 additional days.

The cost savings and the increased productivity make it worth an employer’s efforts to help employees prevent and control diabetes.

How can employers encourage employees to be screened?

Employers can start by educating employees. Diabetes doesn’t just affect older workers; employees in their 20s and 30s are suffering from diabetes, as well. However, many of them don’t realize it; of the nearly 26 million Americans with the disease, about 7 million are undiagnosed. By educating employees about the risks of diabetes and the steps they can take to stay healthy, employers can improve productivity and lower health costs.

For example, those at risk for Type 2 diabetes can prevent or delay the onset of the disease by losing weight, eating healthier and exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Through wellness programs and education, employees can learn to take these small steps that can lead to long-term rewards.

How can employers help those who have been diagnosed?

Once an employee is diagnosed, employers should encourage him or her to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Nearly 90 percent of those suffering from diabetes are also overweight. By offering wellness programs that encourage healthy diet and exercise, employers can help employees better manage their illness.

Employers can also reduce or eliminate the copay on diabetes medication, discount health care premiums in exchange for enrollment in diabetes management programs and offer free testing supplies. By helping your employees stay healthy and productive, you are helping your company do the same.

Julie Sich is health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com.