Managing Diabetes Is a Workplace Health Priority. Digital Tools Can Help.

The condition poses significant financial burdens, employers say

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS October 23, 2019
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November is National Diabetes Month, which is a good time for employers to evaluate whether their health and wellness benefits are helping employees with diabetes stay healthy and productive. If their benefits are not meeting this need, benefit managers should consider chronic-condition management solutions that are updated for the digital age.

In the U.S., more than 30 million people are living with diabetes, generating estimated annual costs that included $237 billion in medical expenses and $90 billion in reduced productivity in 2017, according to the American Diabetes Association.

U.S. employers are concerned about the financial and personal burdens of diabetes, according to results from a July survey of more than 200 health benefit managers at companies that self-fund their health plans.

"Diabetes doesn't quit, and benefits decision-makers are very aware of the day-to-day physical and emotional demands of the condition on their employees and the resulting impact on the bottom line," said Adam Berman, director of franchise marketing at Roche Diabetes Care, which sponsored the survey.

Of all the health-related issues facing their workforces, benefits professionals say diabetes management has the biggest effect on company productivity, compared with obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle and mental health, Berman said. Worker fatigue, understaffing, absenteeism and poorer performance are among the indirect costs.

While 81 percent of surveyed benefit managers believe that employees with diabetes keep their condition a secret, 91 percent expect that employees would be less likely to do so if they could participate in a company-sponsored program that provides tools and resources to manage their condition. Employer-sponsored benefits for employees with diabetes can include:

  • Counseling from health advisors, such as nurse practitioners, on how to stay healthy while living with diabetes, addressing diet, exercise and medication schedules.
  • A private space at work and sufficient break time to monitor blood sugar and take insulin injections.
  • Digital tools, such as smartphone apps, that help employees keep their blood sugar within an appropriate range.

Studies show that participating in an integrated diabetes management program has a significant positive impact on glycemic control, which can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and help to brand a company as a caring employer, Berman said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Health Care Costs]

Evaluating Digital Tools

The nonprofit Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH), a coalition of employers that sponsor health benefits, has posted an online resource, Digital Tools and Solutions for Diabetes: An Employer's Guide, for employers interested in digital tools that can help employees prevent and manage diabetes.

"Employers are well-aware of the costs associated with diabetes in their employee and dependent populations," said Candice Sherman, CEO of NEBGH. Employers also are "increasingly aware of the links between diabetes and other chronic and debilitating health conditions, including cardiovascular disease."

Digital tools, Sherman said, can address the challenges of managing diabetes through features that allow users to do the following:

  • Easily schedule medication reminders.
  • Track blood sugar and weight.
  • Provide and receive support from other users.
  • Get tips and advice to help with daily diabetes management.
  • Count carbs.
  • Adjust insulin doses.
  • Share records with health care professionals in real time.

But digital solutions are not a panacea, Sherman warned. Common obstacles that employers need to address when introducing digital tools to manage diabetes include:

  • Lack of sustained employee engagement.
  • Lack of integration with other health initiatives.
  • The cost of digital solutions.
  • Organizational approval processes for adding or integrating new IT services.

Employers considering introducing such digital tools can begin by asking:

  • What does the company want to achieve with a digital tool to manage diabetes?
  • How much is the company willing to pay?
  • How will success be measured?
  • How will digital tools be marketed to employees and their families?
  • What privacy issues need to be addressed when tools are offered?

"Digital diabetes tools hold the promise of improved health outcomes and reduced health care expenses" by keeping employees engaged with managing their condition, said Mark Cunningham-Hill, NEBGH's medical director. He added that launching a successful diabetes management program around digital apps, however, requires "careful planning and learning from other employers that have successfully implemented these tools."

As an example, Naturally Slim is a digital behavioral counseling program focused on metabolic syndrome (MetS) reversal, diabetes prevention and weight management in employee and health plan populations. The online program teaches participants simple, repeatable skills to lose weight, move more, sleep better and stress less. The company says that more than 50 percent of participants with MetS reverse their condition, and 55 percent of participants reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes.

Related SHRM Articles:

Rising Diabetes Rates Are Costly for Employers, SHRM Online, November 2017

Employers Adopt New Models for Managing Diabetes, SHRM Online, May 2015

Ineffective Diabetes Management Frustrates Employers, SHRM Online, November 2014


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