Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE
The responsibility for the control of the onset of the complications of chronic disease is the responsibility of the patient. Patients live with their disease 24 hours a day and need to learn how to manage it.
There are 20 million patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in America. This number is growing every day because we are experiencing an obesity epidemic. As I have previously discussed, this epidemic is the fault of our cultural conditioning.
The physician’s responsibility is to teach the patient how to manage his chronic disease.
Imagine you were told you have Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Think about your potential emotional responses. Think of all the bad things you have heard about diabetes mellitus. Think about the fantasies you would have about your future morbidity and mortality. These fantasies are the result of the media information and free public service campaigns various organizations have to heighten awareness about Diabetes Mellitus.
The complications of Diabetes Mellitus cost the healthcare system at least $150 billion dollars per year. At a July 4th party, I spoke to a diabetic patient who has had diabetes mellitus for thirty years. He became a professor of diabetes mellitus 28 years ago and has had his blood glucose levels under exquisite control. He has not suffered one complication of diabetes mellitus. There are many patients like this patient.
How does one start to teach patients to be the professor of their disease? I believe it is important for readers of this blog to understand what patients need to learn. It is also important for readers to understand how this process of self-management is a continuous learning project for both the patients and the physicians. The patients’ effort and responsibility in controlling this chronic disease is enormous, and can be very difficult.
You have just been told you have Type 2 diabetes mellitus. If I describe what needs to be learned you can start understanding how this empowerment could result in better control of the blood glucose level. You could also understand how the information could extinguish your fantasies and anxieties about diabetes mellitus. The result would be a decrease in the complication rate of Diabetes Mellitus.
The teaching process has to be a coordinated effort between the physician and the Diabetes Care Team, the nurse educator, dietician, and exercise therapist. We start by teaching patients what Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus is,
why they got it, and how they can reverse Type 2 Diabetes or at least control the rising blood sugar. If patients understands the pathophysiology they know the enemy. They are not frightened about the consequences of the disease. Then a plan can be developed for patients to actively self manage their disease.
At least 20% of the population has the genetic tendency to develop Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. The genetic defect is an underlying resistance to their own insulin. We have insulin receptors on every cell in our body. These receptors attract insulin. The insulin receptor/insulin combination permits our cells to absorb circulating blood glucose. Once in the cells the glucose gets metabolized to carbon dioxide and water. In the process, packets of energy (ATP) are stored in our cells.
Increasing weight, stress, decreasing exercise, and development of infection decrease the insulin receptors affinity to attack circulating insulin. In effect you have an increased resistance to your own insulin. These external factors are additive to the underlying genetic defect. The more weight gained, the less exercise done and the more stress one has the greater the insulin resistance. As the effective insulin receptors decrease (increased insulin resistance) our body produces more insulin to compensate for this increase in insulin resistance. Over time we can not compensate with sufficient output of insulin to overcome the insulin resistance and our blood glucose rises.
Diabetes Mellitus is defined as a fasting blood sugar of greater than 126mg% on two occasions. Patients can have fasting blood glucose of greater than 126 mg% for many years without symptoms. Many people, mostly men, do not have periodic blood glucose measurements.
High blood glucose levels are the cause of the complications of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. The complications are eye disease, kidney disease, neurological disease and heart disease. The average time from the onset to the diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus has been calculated as 8 years. The average time of onset of complications of diabetes varies with the height of the elevation in the blood glucose levels. If you do not recognize that your blood glucose is elevated because you are asymptomatic you can not appreciate that you are harming your body. Many patients first discover they have diabetes mellitus when they are in the Cardiac Care Unit after suffering the cardiovascular complication (heart attack) of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.
Why does a high blood glucose level cause eye disease, kidney disease, neurological disease and heart disease? I have observed that once people understand the concept they become motivated to control their blood glucose levels.
Understanding causality is simple. A graphic way of understanding the process is to know that sugar helps alter proteins. The process of converting cucumbers to sour pickles comes to mind. You mix water, vinegar, salt, spices and sugar together. Then add cucumbers to the liquid and put the container in the closet for two weeks. The cucumbers have turned to sour pickles because the proteins in the cucumber have been deformed.
One can think of a person with a high blood glucose level deforming all the proteins in their body. They are essentially pickling all the cells and vessels in their body. The blood vessels narrow because the cells lining the blood vessels are deformed. For example, If there is not enough blood supply to the eye, the body tries to compensate by making more vessels. These new blood vessels (neovascularization) float on the surface of the retina and are fragile. If they bleed, patients can become blind. This narrowing applies to the blood vessels around nerves resulting in neuropathy. As blood vessels narrow, nerve endings will fire ineffectively. Many times these nerve ending misfires are painful. Many patients lose feeling in their extremities as a result of misfiring of nerve ending.
The hemoglobin molecule carries oxygen to the cells of the body. Each red blood cell has a 120 day life cycle. If a red blood cell is born in a high glucose environment it gets deformed or pickled and rather than being a simple Hb molecule it is now a HBA1c molecule. The higher your HBA1c level is, the higher your average blood glucose level has been over the three month period of time. A normal HbA1c level is under 6%. The HbA1c is that high in normal people because after a meal a normal blood glucose can go as high as 160mg%. National laboratories have calculated that the average Type 2 diabetic has a HbA1c of 9.2%. This finding means that neither patients nor physicians are doing a very good job in lowering the HbA1c to normal.
The patient I referred to earlier with diabetes for 30 years has a HbA1c level of 5.5%
Next time I will describe how that goal of a normal HbA1c can be achieved by the patients. It is the essence of the principle of chronic disease management. Normalization of the HbA1c levels can reduce the complication rate of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus by at least 50%. It can theoretically reduce the complication rate of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus by 100%. Fifty percent of $150 billion dollars is not a shabby dollar amount toward the repair of the healthcare system. However, the necessary education process to empower the patients to control their blood glucose levels and prevent obesity is not supported by society, the insurance industry or the government.