COVID-19 is changing everything. Here's what that means for diabetes

Social distancing is critical in managing the spread of COVID-19, particularly for diabetic patients who are at high risk for serious complications if they catch the novel coronavirus.

But being stuck at home also poses major barriers to managing their diabetes in the first place.

Now, health plans and their tech partners are adapting to a world where their members with prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes are encouraged to stay within their homes—adapting existing tools aimed at lifestyle change to meet the new, more isolated reality.

Angie Kalousek, director of markets and lifestyle medicine at Blue Shield of California, who helps run the insurer’s Wellvolution program, said that’s also required a shift in priorities to meet member needs. Emotional health and well-being are becoming a central focus, she said. 

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Alex Petrov, CEO of Yes Health, a tech platform that partners with Blue Shield, agreed, saying that amid financial worries and increasing isolation, addressing behavioral health has edged out fitness and nutrition in the hierarchy of needs amid the pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 reality has completely changed our story and our approach,” Petrov said. 

That’s a trend that’s not limited to Blue Shield and Yes Health. Sean Duffy, CEO of Omada Health, said that his company has a seen its diabetes patients increase their use of Omada’s behavioral health tools by 10 times of late. 

That led Omada to more directly integrate some of its behavioral health modules into its platform for chronic disease management, he said. 

“The reality is everyone’s feeling it in their own way,” Duffy said, “but the month of April for the country is associated with extraordinary levels of anxiety.” 

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Chronic care management companies and their health plan partners have also been forced to quickly roll out options to help people work out at home and manage their nutrition more independently. 

Kalousek said that Blue Shield’s partners like Yes Health are offering virtual exercise options, and the insurer has also been making video content available to members directly.  

Blue Shield launched an internal program for employees to encourage them to stay fit while staying home, and the positive response has led the company to share those clips through social media so members can view them as well.  

The content varies and includes popular options such as zumba and yoga to keep the experience fresh, she said. 

“We don’t know where COVID is going and we don’t know how many people are going to get it, but I think now more than ever, especially for people in the diabetes population, this is the time for them to address their issues,” Kalousek said. 

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Omada added new communities to its app to help its users stay fit and healthy at home, Duffy said. About 1,100 people signed up for the “Staying Active at Home” community within its first 24 hours, and 922 joined the platform’s “Healthy Eating at Home on a Budget” community in its first day. 

Omada’s app uses modular tiles for personalized alerts, and the company launched 28 new tiles in response to COVID-19 and nixed 12 that weren’t appropriate for users during the pandemic, he said. Omada also added 10 new goals for users and temporarily removed 24 that didn’t work for now. 

The company’s product team holds a daily virtual meeting to weigh ongoing platform changes to better suit users’ needs as they stay home, Duffy said. 

“We have never had to use as much of the modular features to make pivotal product changes as quickly as we have over the last month, because the realities for our participants were so night and day different,” he said. 

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Diabetes management companies are also seeing changes in medication management and adherence thanks to the pandemic. 

Anurati Mathur, CEO of Sempre Health, a platform that offers point-of-sale dynamic drug discounts and text reminders in concert with health insurers, said signs point to diabetes patients more closely managing their medications as the pandemic continues. 

“With what we know about patient behavior at this time, they’re actively managing their chronic conditions and staying on top of refills in a way that may not have previously,” Mathur said. 

Sempre is also seeing the pandemic lead to more users understanding the benefits they have available to them—such as home medication delivery—that will still be options when the crisis has waned, said Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney, vice president of business development at Sempre Health. 

The changes brought on by social distancing are likely to have a lasting effect on managing diabetes, Duffy said. He expects that the increased use of telehealth and digital health tools will stick. 

For example, Omada offers continuous glucose monitors to some of its members, which cut down on the need for visits to the doctor for HbA1c tests. It’s a great perk when people are asked to stay home as much as possible to limit the strain on the system during a pandemic, but also one that can avoid visits in more normal times, too. 

“There's never been a stronger case in my mind that one should ask yourself, ‘Do you really need to go in person for this element of care or not?’” Duffy said.