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Diabetes and the health care safety net

By Bert Green, Special to CNN
updated 4:55 PM EST, Mon November 14, 2011
Access to insulin and medical care can make diabetes manageable.
Access to insulin and medical care can make diabetes manageable.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Diabetes is quickly becoming one of the world's most prevalent diseases, says Bert Green
  • World Health Organization estimates that 346 million people worldwide are affected
  • Green: Half a million Americans with diabetes rely on their local community health clinics
  • As the recession continues, more patients are seeking care at such facilities, says Green

Editor's note: Bert Green is an interventional cardiologist and serves on the board of directors for Direct Relief International. He is active on the staff of Providence Medical Center, Swedish Hospital Medical Center and Highline Community Hospital in Seattle, and has been on the clinical faculty of the University of Washington Medical Center.

(CNN) -- As fall turns into winter and the temperatures start to plummet, many people in the United States are struggling to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and stay warm. On top of these daily challenges, a staggering number of people with chronic diseases have an additional burden: trying to figure out how they can afford life-sustaining medications. In today's economy, millions of people are becoming more and more reliant on America's network of community clinics and health centers as their primary source of medical care, especially those who need daily medicine to survive.

Diabetes is increasing globally and is quickly becoming one of the world's most prevalent health conditions. The World Health Organization and American Diabetes Association estimate that 346 million people worldwide and 25 million Americans are affected, and total deaths from diabetes are projected to rise by more than 50% in the next 10 years. But the outlook does not have to be this grim -- diabetes is manageable if people are able to access proper care and medicine.

Monday is World Diabetes Day, a time to shine a spotlight on this disease, its escalating rates of diagnosis, and methods of treatment and prevention.

A report released Monday by Direct Relief International, a medical relief nonprofit, makes it clear that over 550,000 people in the U.S. rely on quality, affordable services provided by their local community health clinics to help manage their diabetes. These clinics are the ties that bind our nation's health care safety net together by ensuring that everyone -- regardless of insurance status -- can get the care they need. Increasing reliance on these clinics as a primary means of medical care (versus ending up in the emergency room) is putting a bigger strain on these facilities and their already limited resources.

Bert Green
Bert Green

In an attempt to relieve some of the pressure faced by these critical safety net providers, Direct Relief has partnered with clinics in all 50 states to provide no-cost medicines to help them care for their most vulnerable patients. Because of this extensive network of partners, Direct Relief has been able to gather unprecedented data and information about the state of the nation's safety net -- enabling a comprehensive collection and analysis of information about people receiving care at these facilities.

The data that have been collected from a recent survey of clinic partners have demonstrated that not only are the numbers of people relying on clinics escalating, but the number of people in need of medical attention for chronic disease, specifically diabetes, is growing.

Direct Relief's survey of the health centers in its network indicates that the number of uninsured patients with diabetes at these centers increased by almost 7% last year -- an estimated 36,000 new patients in 2010.

In the context of continuing economic recession, the survey indicates that more patients, and more patients with diabetes, are seeking care at nonprofit safety net facilities.

This new data snapshot of critical patient trends has helped Direct Relief International improve how it targets and distributes the medical supplies needed for people with diabetes. And the medical technology company BD responded for the second consecutive year by donating 5 million insulin syringes to assist safety net providers in caring for their patients with diabetes. This intervention alone unquestionably improved the health and lives of thousands of people.

Today, as the world health community turns its attention to diabetes, we should recognize the critical role that our own nation's community clinics and health centers play. Treatment of diabetes and America's health care safety net go hand in hand. Without these clinics, millions of people in the U.S. with diabetes would not get the consistent, affordable and local care that they need to live healthy and productive lives.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Bert Green.

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