November is Diabetes Awareness Month in Canada. Like many chronic conditions, diabetes has taken a bit of a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic, as healthcare providers focused on other priorities. Yet diabetes remains a silent pandemic that is costing employers and insurers millions of dollars a year in lost productivity, disability claims and drug spending.
The incidence of diabetes did not slow down in 2021: a staggering one in three Canadians has diabetes or prediabetes, and more than 20 people in Canada are diagnosed with the disease every hour of every day. Employers should note that over half of all new cases are in people who are of working age.
A silent threat.
What’s driving this growth? Health experts blame three factors: obesity, lack of exercise and age. In fact, approximately 60% of Canadians are overweight and half of Canadians over the age of 12 are inactive – something that may be getting even worse with the growing trend of working from home. Along with a more sedentary society, we also have an aging population that is seeing a sharp increase in diabetes occurring after the age of 40. But it’s not just a problem for adults: there is a disturbing rise of Type 2 diabetes in children as well.
While Type 2 diabetes can be preventable and usually responds well to treatment and lifestyle changes, there are significant indirect health events associated with diabetes. For example, a significant percentage of strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure are related to diabetes, and it’s implicated in 70% of all non-traumatic amputations in Canada. Yet awareness of these risks and early warning signs of the disease tends to remain low.
The result is an estimated $15.36-billion healthcare price tag related to diabetes by 2022. Benefits plans are facing drug costs that are four times higher for diabetes claims than for mental health claims. Making things worse, in the past ten years, the percentage of plan members using three or more drugs to treat their diabetes has grown from 14% to 26%.
For some employers, diabetes treatment, including supplies, now account for as much as 15% of their total benefits plan drug costs. There are also additional, indirect costs incurred by diabetic employees being absent up to ten days more each year than their non-diabetic coworkers. Diabetic employees are also three times more likely to take early retirement due to illness.
How employers can help.
There are many ways that people living with diabetes can manage their health, including lifestyle changes and new technology that provides rapid or continuous glucose monitoring. But employers can also play a big role helping to tackle Canada’s diabetes problem. A good place to start is by raising awareness in the workplace about the risk factors associated with diabetes, and leveraging resources like the Government of Canada’s free online assessment to help employees assess their risks for the disease.
For over 14% of Canadians above the age of 12 who don’t have a family doctor, adding a virtual care option to your benefits plan may support early diagnosis and offer an accessible way for employees to be proactive about their health and their care plans.
Pharmacists can play an important key role in helping plan members manage their diabetes: they offer consultations to help with medication side effects and can coach patients on lifestyle changes to support their wellness journeys. Getting personalized support from a friendly and experienced pharmacist is easier than ever, now that virtual pharmacy services are available in Canada and can be easily incorporated into benefits plans. Virtual pharmacy services allow employees to get private support from licensed pharmacists whenever and wherever it’s most convenient (by video chat or phone). Virtual pharmacies can also help reduce members’ out of pocket costs and employers’ overall drug costs, and some even offer pre-packaged medications to help patients and caregivers adhere to complex medication regimens.*
Another key for managing diabetes is to manage stress. Stress complicates diabetes by increasing blood glucose, and it may also lead to unhealthy eating, increased alcohol use and poor sleep, all of which make living with diabetes much harder.
Lastly, a member-centric employee assistance program (EAP) can make a big difference by providing stress management tools and access to experienced therapists. And, as lifestyle changes are also proven to help prevent and treat diabetes, make sure your EAP can also connect plan members with dieticians and other allied health professionals who can support these important changes.
A final tool employers can use in the fight against diabetes is training people-managers. When managers understand the realities of living with diabetes, they can offer their team members the support and flexibility they need. Additionally, make sure managers understand what resources are available through your benefits programs so they can encourage their team members to take advantage of them. Empowering managers to offer flexible work hours or remote work opportunities may also help their employees manage stress.
There is no doubt diabetes, along with other chronic conditions, is having a significant impact on the overall wellbeing of the Canadian workforce. But with the right resources and an increased awareness, the human and financial costs of diabetes can be reduced. Employers can turn to virtual care as a way to improve access to diagnostic and clinical support, look at virtual pharmacies for their support in medication adherence and lifestyle changes, and talk to their EAP provider to ensure they have patient advocates who can connect employees with the resources they need to help manage stress and stay healthy.
Learn more about how TELUS Employer Solutions and TELUS Health are helping to build a healthier future.
*Virtual Pharmacy not available in Quebec yet