Imagine you’re driving and all of a sudden—ding—the dreaded check engine light flashes. Your next stop is probably a mechanic because fixing an engine problem early will keep you and your loved ones safe, and typically costs less than ignoring the issue.
Catherine Serio, PhD, Associate Vice President for Digital Behavioral Solutions at UPMC Health Plan, believes prediabetes is the check engine light for the human body that lets us know something is not working right. Nationally, one in three people have prediabetes, and diabetes-related expenses cost employers around $20 billion per year ,. If ignored, prediabetes often progresses to type 2 diabetes, impacting quality of life and leading to expensive medications, medical supplies, and other health complications.
Discussion with Catherine Serio, AVP for Digital Behavioral Solutions
- Can you talk about how diabetes prevention became such an important topic in your career?
- My interactions with providers and patients over my 20+ year career in health care has taught me an important lesson: Health is the most vital resource for our society’s future. For the first time in history, one of the biggest risks to population health is not infectious disease, like the flu, but rather from conditions stemming from lifestyle behaviors like diabetes. Much like washing our hands or getting a vaccine helps stop the spread of the flu, there are small things that individuals can do to prevent type 2 diabetes or prevent their existing diabetes from worsening.
- Type 2 diabetes isn’t a new condition—it’s been around for ages. Why haven’t we figured out how to best deal with it?
- By the time someone is diagnosed with diabetes, they often have other conditions like coronary artery disease that also threaten their health and longevity. That’s why the more we empower people to use proven methods for slowing or stopping the progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes, the better. For instance, reducing body weight by just 5 percent is clinically shown to reduce the risk of diabetes. So, for a person weighing 200 pounds, that’s losing just 10 pounds. The challenge is that most people don’t know they have prediabetes. And for those people who are aware of their risks, they don’t know how to change.
- What is novel about UPMC Health Plan’s approach to diabetes prevention and management?
UPMC Health Plan is an innovator in diabetes prevention and chronic condition management. Our experts were part of the University of Pittsburgh team that created the lifestyle interventions now used in the National Diabetes Prevention Program. Today, our members have access to a wide variety of tools and programs to change their lifestyle including evidence-based lifestyle health coaching and condition management programs and diabetes self-management programs.
And we continue to innovate. The future of health care is moving from the hospital and the doctor’s office to home—becoming more patient-centric rather than doctor-centric. My team is working to bring these scientifically proven lifestyle change programs and access to our certified coaches and nurses right into members’ hands.
- What advice do you have for employers who are trying to empower their employees to take ownership of their future health?
- The health of your workforce is your most valuable investment. Without them, you don’t have a business. When leadership values health, employees will follow, so ask what your team can do to demonstrate how important health is. Employers can start small—such as a worksite initiative to promote walking—and take the crucial first step of providing tools and engaging employees to create change.
A holistic approach to diabetes prevention and care
The direct health care expenses for individuals diagnosed with diabetes in Pennsylvania were estimated by the Americans with Disabilities Act to be $9.3 billion in 2017, plus an additional $3.5 billion in lost productivity. The digital technologies that Catherine and her team are creating are only one part of UPMC Health Plan’s holistic approach to chronic condition prevention and management.
As part of an integrated delivery and finance system, UPMC Health Plan members have access to expert providers—primary care doctors, diabetes specialists, patient educators, and care coordinators—as well as cutting-edge diabetes research that comes out of the University of Pittsburgh. They are also able to participate in a variety of care management programs to meet their individual health needs.
- Lifestyle health coaching: A certified health coach guides members through an evidence-based program that helps them achieve goals such as quitting tobacco, managing weight, increasing physical activity, improving nutrition, and managing stress.
- Condition management programs: A nurse practitioner helps members manage their conditions by teaching self-management skills and coordinating care with providers.
- Diabetes self-management education: A diabetes provider leads in-person group sessions which provide members with a resource for their individual concerns, peer-support, and practical information on subjects such as nutrition and testing blood sugar.
- UPMC Centers for Diabetes Education and Support: A network of care facilities throughout western Pennsylvania provides educational support programs and care to members living with diabetes.
Much like how regular maintenance to a car can keep it running smoothly, making small lifestyle changes can ensure good long-term health and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes. UPMC Health Plan’s holistic approach to prevention can provide your employees the education, tools, and access to the care needed to lead healthy, productive lives.
 American Diabetes Association. (2019). The Burden of Diabetes in Pennsylvania. Retrieved September 3, 2019, from the American Diabetes Association: http://main.diabetes.org/dorg/docs/state-fact-sheets/ADV_2019_State_Fact_Sheet_PA.pdf.
 Centers for Disease Control. (2019, May 30). Prediabetes: Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes. Washington, DC. Retrieved September 16, 2019, from the Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/prediabetes.html.
 Satter, M. Y. (2017, November 14). Diabetes costs employers more than $20 billion annually. Retrieved September 10, 2019, from Benefits Pro: https://www.benefitspro.com/2017/11/14/diabetes-costs-employers-more-than-20-billion-annu/?slreturn=20190811150915.