Having spent many years in scientific research, investigating the underlying mechanisms of diabetes and trying to identify new possible ways for treatment, I have developed a great interest for this disease. To me, diabetes is so much more than just high blood glucose levels and the fact that there are two different types of the disease; it is a complex metabolic disease affecting multiple organs and parts of the body, often with serious consequences. Therefore, I am frequently surprised by the way diabetes is communicated to the general public. From many articles, people generally only receive topline information leading to a lack of clear understanding of the disease. Many falsely consider diabetes to be a simple lifestyle condition with no serious consequences and certainly do not attribute an increased risk for morbidity and mortality with the disease.

Diabetes – a disease of superlatives!

  • More than 371 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, by 2030 this number is expected to rise to 552 million  
  • At least 183 million people (50%) with diabetes are undiagnosed
  • The majority (90%) of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, the vast majority (80%) of which are over-weight
  • Diabetes caused 4.8 million deaths in 2012, by 2030 diabetes is expected to be the 7th leading cause of death
  • 50% of people with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes is one of the leading causes of blindness, amputation and kidney failure
  • Global health expenditure in 2012 totaled over 471 billion USD and is expected to reach 595 billion USD by 2030

From these facts it is evident that diabetes is accompanied by a large number of secondary complications which contribute both to its complex treatment and, sadly, also to its high morbidity. In short, if you’re living with diabetes, this is not the only disease you should be concerned about. In fact the leading cause of death for people suffering from diabetes is cardiovascular disease, but kidney failure, nerve damage, amputations and vision loss are other potential secondary complications.

Moving away from 1-dimensional definitions

Historically, diabetes is defined by high levels of blood glucose, but physicians and scientist now often refer to a condition known as the ‘metabolic syndrome’. In a nutshell, this term refers to a combination of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. On their own, each of these symptoms increases your risk for heart disease, but having them together potentiates the risk. Last month the American Medical Association went as far as to discuss whether obesity should be classified as a disease. While this, of course, is a highly controversial and emotional topic, it emphasizes an increased awareness among physicians and the healthcare community to address the interconnectedness of metabolic imbalance and the increased risk for secondary complications.

So now what?

While education and general messaging around diabetes often centers around blood glucose levels, a matrixed approach is required to not only treat the multi-factorial aspect of the disease, but also to help patients understand the complexity of their disease.  As a communications and marketing consultancy operating in the healthcare space, we need to provide our clients with unique solutions to help simplify the messaging complexity while providing them with a platform to drive better education and healthcare initiatives. Partnering with clients in the field of diabetes requires thinking beyond the myriad of diabetes-centric messages that currently fill patient outreach campaigns. We need to bring together stakeholders that may not be the obvious choice; such as physicians and patient groups advocating in the space of cardiology, kidney disease, vision or aging. For example, vision groups may often be overlooked due to bigger associations in the cardiology, kidney or aging space but thinking about secondary complications like diabetic macular edema (DME), the most frequent cause of blindness in young and mid-aged adults, these groups can be powerful stakeholders and may help raise awareness from a new perspective.

Importantly, as diabetes can be part of the metabolic syndrome, we as communicators need to embrace all the complexities of this broader disease area by engaging with the varied groups who advocate for patients to have better access to treatment and care across all stages of disease – not just at the onset of diabetes.

In times where companies across the globe struggle to overcome market access and reimbursement hurdles and yet the definitions of disease are shifting and expanding, the importance of engaging a multi-stakeholder audience to demonstrate the value and impact of medicines is more important than ever. In Europe price cuts have been put in place for a number of diabetes drugs, with Germany going as far as to retrospectively evaluate drugs which are already launched and reimbursed. These developments call for the engagement of powerful stakeholders outside of the traditional diabetes sector to communicate the full value for patients living with the disease.