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Keeping Glucose in Range, With the Right Tools and Treatment for Management

Mary Caffrey
Coverage from the July 11, 2019, meeting of the Institute for Value-Based Medicine®, an initiative of The American Journal of Managed Care®. The meeting took place in Arlington, Virginia.
The chart on the screen tracked the patient’s blood glucose with a red line and insulin levels in blue. There was a noticeable bump shortly after 4 p.m., and Stephen C. Clement, MD, director of Endocrine Services at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Annandale, Virginia, challenged his audience to guess why.

The answer: the study was from England, and it was tea time! Servings of tea with sugar and milk, or perhaps a scone, were showing up in the data.1

Clement’s question illustrated his point: environment has everything to do with a person’s blood glucose and insulin patterns, and in the United States we haven’t done the best job of creating or sustaining healthy environments for good diabetes management. In fact, some native populations have seen their environments destroyed, followed by the population-wide devastation of their health because they were no longer working farmland or gathering their own food. For example, the Pima people, who live in southern Arizona, have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes (T2D) in the world at 38%, even though genetically similar people living in Mexico have rates of (T2D) of nearly 7%. around 6.9%.2

Reversing the population health mistakes of recent decades will not be easy, but failing to do so will be deadly and cost more in the long run, according to the panel of experts that Clement convened at the Institute for Value-Based Medicine®, an initiative of The American Journal of Managed Care®. The July 11 session, in Arlington, Virginia, featured:
  • Thomas Donner, MD, director of the Diabetes Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who discussed innovation in glucose monitoring;
  • Lauren B. Cooper, MD, MHS, FACC, FHFSA, a specialist in heart failure and transplant cardiology at the Inova Heart & Vascular Institute, who discussed how today’s therapies can prevent cardiovascular events;
  • Michelle W. Jeffery, MD, a specialist in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism in the Section of Endocrinology, Department of Medicine, Inova Fairfax Hospital, who discussed the barriers some patients face in managing their diabetes;
  • John Miller, executive director of the MidAtlantic Business Group on Health, who discussed the need for employers to address obesity in the workforce.
As Clement explained, the body’s regulation of blood glucose is highly complex; the body is designed to use glucose through exercise and store what it doesn’t use for another time.

“When everything is working great, what’s left in the blood is glucose in a very narrow range,” he said; ideally, Donner explained later, that range is around 80 mg/dL to 180 mg/dL over the course of the day.3

People with T1D no longer produce insulin to regulate blood glucose, including converting it to energy; the inability to regulate blood glucose leads to a host of other complications.

“Those of us who care for people with diabetes know that it’s the leading cause of adult blindness, ESRD [end-stage renal disease], the leading cause of amputations, and the leading cause of heart attack and stroke,” he said.

Because a person with T1D must self-administer insulin—with calculations that factor in food intake, exercise, and sleep—the process of also keeping blood glucose in a narrow range that prevents complications can be overwhelming. As Donner noted, the injections hurt. The math is difficult. It’s not always convenient.

“What if you’re at a restaurant?” he asked, giving a nod to the stigma that many with T1D have described about administering insulin in public.

That’s where insulin pump therapy and continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) technology can make a huge difference. Pumps can be adjusted to administer more or less insulin at different times of the day; for example, it’s known that stress hormones activate between around 4 to 5 a.m., and a normal pancreas would make more insulin to counteract those hormones. “With a pump, we can program the pump to give more insulin,” Donner said.

CGM systems, meanwhile, not only read blood glucose throughout the day, but tell which direction it’s heading, he said. And while pumps and CGM have been around for several years, recently the technology has made significant strides. Donner discussed several innovations and shared photos with the audience:
  • The tubeless Omnipod insulin pump, which is popular with pediatric patients and athletes.
  • The Dexcom G6 CGM, which eliminatesthe need for fingerstick calibrations and has a thin, low-profile sensor that transmits data to either a receiver or a smartphone.
  • Combined CGM and insulin pump technology,such as Medtronic’s 670G,which automatically adjusts insulin doses for the user, based on CGM readings taken every 5 minutes.
  • The Freestyle Libre “Flash” CGM, which does not have alarms; instead, users wave a reader over the sensor and upload data. The  Abbott system is significantly cheaper than traditional CGMs; an analysis published earlier this year by Evidence-Based Diabetes Management found that the annual costs for the Abbott CGM are $900 to $1800, compared with $3000 to $5000 for a traditional CGM.4
Donner said he is starting to see higher use of the Freestyle Libre among patients with T2D who are on insulin. “They tend to be pretty well-covered,” by insurance.

Besides designs that are increasingly smaller and more discrete, new features can upload a user’s data to a physician, sparing the patient the need to record daily blood glucose readings. “It’s great for us, as clinicians or nurse practitioners, to see what times of day are our problem areas,” Donner said.

Moreover, remote monitoring features—which let parents or spouses see blood glucose readings in real time—can prevent a trip to the hospital or worse. Donner shared the story of a mother who monitored her son’s blood glucose as it took a nose dive while he slept in his college dorm room. When neither her son or his roommate answered her calls, she finally called security to wake him.

Donner discussed the “artificial pancreas” systems that FDA has approved and those under development. One attendee asked if Donner was familiar with patients who try the “do-it-yourself” systems with shared software on the internet. He did not advocate using something that had not been tested (FDA has recently issued a warning about such systems).5 However, he saidthose who are using such systems “are pushing the companies to advance things more quickly.”

Looking at the Whole Patient to Improve Outcomes

“Nobody dies from retinopathy,” Inova’s Cooper said, as she discussed the need for the care of people with diabetes to “really look at the whole patient,” so that attention is paid not just to disabling complications, but to those that can kill—namely, heart failure.

The integration between diabetes and cardiovascular care has been underway for more than a decade, and Cooper reviewed the transition that began in 2008 when FDA began requiring drug makers to conduct cardiovascular outcomes trials (CVOTs) for new diabetes therapies.6 The early trials to track major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE) have uncovered unexpected benefits for sodium glucose co-transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists.

Now, attention is finally turning to the connection between diabetes and heart failure. Diabetes increases the risk of heart failure more than 2-fold in men and more than 5-fold in women.7 “We have known this since the Framingham Heart Study,” Cooper said, “We are finally getting there.”

Cooper presented a slide showing all the reported trials and upcoming CVOTs, which showed that while the first wave of trials did not have heart failure as a primary end point, a new wave involving SGLT2 inhibitors and heart failure—including some patients without diabetes—are concluding now (after July’s session, AstraZeneca announced that dapagliflozin had met its primary end points in the DAPA-HF study).8

FDA’s 2008 directive ended up revealing benefits from subsequent classes of T2D drugs that “have ushered in a new era of diabetes drug development.”

Not all the classes behaved the same way. For the dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors, the MACE results were “pretty neutral,” Cooper said; with liraglutide, a GLP-1 receptor agonist, and empagliflozin, an SGLT2 inhibitor, there was a clear cardiovascular benefit.

“We finally have the holy grail of diabetes medications,” she said.

With empagliflozin, Cooper pointed to a figure from the EMPA-REG OUTCOME study9 and said, “Look how early these curves separate. Almost immediately you see a benefit.”

While the level of robustness varied among the SGLT2 inhibitors, the trials had one thing in common: results were largely driven by reduction in hospitalization for heart failure, which had long been one of the biggest cost drivers in healthcare.10

“More people should be on these drugs,” Cooper said. “If you can keep people out of the hospital, you are going to save money.”

The bottom line? Cardiologists and endocrinologists must work together to prescribe drugs that will reduce the risk of conditions that harm patients, even if they perceive that condition to fall outside their specialty. Recent prevention guidelines from the American College of Cardiology call for this.11

“We need to move away from referring to somebody else, and we all need to take responsibility,” Cooper said.

Good Diabetes Management Starts With Acceptance

The way Jeffery sees it, a diagnosis of diabetes sets off a process that is very much like the stages of grief. Except it’s not linear. “Most of the time, this is a cyclic process,” the endocrinologist said, with patients going through denial and depression and back again.

“Regardless of where they are on that spectrum, it will impair their ability to manage their diabetes,” Jeffery said. “None of the treatment modalities will have any success until they get to acceptance.”

And for many of her patients, social determinants of health—lack of education, housing, or language barriers—must be addressed before acceptance is possible. Jeffery sees many patients who arrive in the emergency department due to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and are diagnosed for the first time. Often, they are overwhelmed by the news itself, let alone the wave of instructions, tools, and new treatments. For those with T1D, Jeffery must explain that many of the drugs they’ve seen in ads on television are not for them.

Welcome to insulin. If patients cannot afford the newer analogs or have no insurance, it will be off to Walmart for the $25-per-vial isophane (NPH) variety, which will make glucose management that much more challenging.

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