Doctors encouraged by new diabetes treatment

In this Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 photo, diabetes educator Kimberly P. Miller, BSN, RN, CDE, holds a Medtronic Minimed diabetes insulin pump in her office at CHI Memorial, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — While the number of Tennesseans fighting diabetes continues to grow, doctors are encouraged by new treatment options they say may help prevent, or at least lessen, the impact of the chronic disease.

About 9 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes but the rate in Tennessee is close to 15 percent, said Kimberly Miller, a nurse and diabetes educator in CHI Memorial’s Diabetes and Nutrition Center. Tennesseans are fatter than the national average and get less exercise, two factors that often lead to Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease.

Untreated, diabetes can cause eye, kidney, and heart problems, or even death.

But diabetes specialists hope new technology and improvements in some old-fashioned techniques will help lower the number of people who get the disease and make it easier for those who have it to control their illness.

Diabetes is caused when the body is unable to manufacture sufficient insulin, or becomes resistant to it. Insulin is needed to break down sugars in food to provide energy to the cells in the body.

In its early stages, diabetes can be treated with exercise and changes in diet. But for certain types of diabetics, where the body is producing little or no insulin or has become resistant, a more aggressive approach is needed.

The normal way of treating full-blown diabetes is for patients to inject insulin before every meal and at bedtime. To gauge the proper dose, patients must test their blood sugar levels using a blood sample inserted into a device. Then they must inject insulin through a syringe, normally in the stomach or abdomen.

The process is time-consuming, painful and awkward. But new medical devices show promise for getting rid of at least some of the blood work, although they are not appropriate for all diabetics.

One category of device measures blood sugar levels automatically. The patient wears a patch or has a small tube (a catheter) inserted under the skin that measures blood sugar on a regular basis and transmits readings to a larger piece of equipment that displays the levels.

With a monitor, a patient can see their blood sugar, or glucose, levels rising or falling in time to take preventive action, Miller said. Some devices also transmit data remotely so family members or friends can help monitor patients and call for help if their blood sugar levels are getting out of line and the patient is doing nothing to correct them.

“The devices have been around for some time, but they used to be very inaccurate and difficult to use,” said Dr. Ashley Shoemaker, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center professor whose clinic treats some 2,500 diabetic children annually. “Now they have become accurate enough that people are allowed to make medical decisions based on their numbers.