Expert Perspective

The Team Approach to Managing Type 2 Diabetes

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Those of us who treat patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) daily have long recognized a disturbing irony: diabetes is a disease whose management requires consistency in approach and constancy in delivery, but it is most prevalent among those whose lives often allow little to no time for either.

In our clinic, many patients with diabetes are struggling, in some way, to incorporate diabetes management into their daily lives. They are juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities; they are working jobs with inconsistent access to food or refrigeration (such as farming, service industry work, and others); and many—even those with insurance—are struggling to afford their insulin and non insulin medications, insulin administration supplies, and glucose testing equipment.

Studies show how stress deleteriously affects this disease. The body does not deal well with these frequent and persistent stressors; higher cortisol levels result in higher blood glucose levels, increased systemic inflammation, and other drivers of both diabetes and its complications; all have been extensively documented.

What has been frustrating for our clinical community is knowing that since the early 2000s, new diabetes medications and technologies have been available that can make a difference in our patients’ lives, but for various reasons, they have not been well adopted , particularly among patients most likely to benefit from them. Consequently, we have not consistently seen meaningfully reduced glycated hemoglobin (A1c) levels or reduced rates of acute or chronic diabetes complications. Therapeutic inertia exists at the patient, systemic, and physician levels.

Many of the new glucose-lowering medications can also improve cardiovascular and kidney disease outcomes with low risk for hypoglycemia and weight gain. Diabetes technologies like insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (CGM) have been demonstrated in clinical trials to improve A1c and reduce hypoglycemia risk. But the reality is that clinicians are seeing an increasing number of patients with high A1c, with hypoglycemia, with severe hyperglycemia, and with long-term diabetes complications.

If these advancements are supposed to improve health outcomes, why are patient, community, and population health not improving? Why are some patients not receiving the care they need, while others get extra services that do not improve their health and may even harm them?

These advancements also create new questions for clinicians. At what point in the disease course should existing medications be ramped up, ramped down, or changed? Which patient characteristics or comorbidities allow or do not allow these changes? When should we use technologies or when does their burden outweigh their potential benefits? What resources and support systems do our patients need to live well with their disease and how can these be procured?

Herein lies the problem: Diabetes is a dynamic disease that needs to be handled in a dynamic way, and that has not universally—or even frequently—occurred. Management must be a team endeavor, meaning that both patient and clinician must be proactive in diabetes management. It has been our experience, demonstrated in our work and in other studies, that success relies on a robust and comprehensive primary care system whose team members—physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, pharmacists, certified diabetes care and education specialists, social workers, nurses, pharmacists, and dietitians—are all resilient and motivated to tackle one of the most complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional chronic health conditions in our practice.

Proactivity also includes consistent monitoring, learning from successes and failures, and public reporting . For the patient, proactive involvement generally means self-care multiple times a day.

Let us now discuss the evidence that prompted our team’s proactive approach to caring for people living with diabetes.

Gauges and perspective

The prevalence of T2D in this country stands at 11.3% within the adult population. Between 2015 and 2020, death from diabetes increased by 27%.

For years, the research community has documented the wide range of socioeconomic factors that increase the risk for developing T2D and that, once developed, make it more difficult for patients to manage their disease and achieve optimal health outcomes that are possible with available medications and technologies.

In 2019, Kazemian et al published work that examined the indicators of diabetes management progress (eg, A1c levels, cholesterol levels) of 1742 individuals, from 2005 to 2016. Just 23% to 25% of these patients achieved all goals, even though, during the study period, numerous medications were approved to manage disease better. Arguably, these should have improved the all-goal findings in the study.

The first injectable glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonist (GLP-1 RA) was approved in 2005; between 2013 and 2016, the FDA also approved 4 sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors. Both medication classes can safely and effectively lower A1c with no weight gain and low risk for hypoglycemia. Over the past 4 years, a robust body of evidence has emerged to show that GLP-1 RAs and SGLT2 inhibitors not only lower A1c, but also reduce the likelihood of death from cardiovascular and kidney diseases. SGLT2 inhibitors are better at saving lives from hypertensive heart failure while the GLP-1 RAs are more protective from atherosclerotic cardiovascular events like myocardial infarction and stroke, as compared with placebo. Yet, these medications have not been, and continue not to be, regularly prescribed. In 1 study, the authors found that the rate of use for SGLT2 inhibitors was 3.8% in 2015 and 11.9% in 2019.

But there are several other reasons that patients do not receive these medicines.


We conducted a retrospective cohort study of 382,574 adults between 58 and 66 years of age, insured by either a Medicare Advantage plan or commercial insurance, and compared treatment initiation of the 3 most common brand-name, second-line diabetes medications (as opposed to generic sulfonylureas), between 2016 and 2019. The rate of initiation was universally lower for Medicare Advantage members vs commercially insured individuals.

While the rates of initiation of GLP-1 RAs, SGLT2 inhibitors, and dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitors increased between 2016 and 2019, rates were significantly higher among patients with commercial insurance. Specifically, GLP-1 RA initiation increased from 2.1% to 20.0% among commercial insurance beneficiaries and from 1.5% to 11.4% among Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. SGLT2 inhibitor initiation increased from 2.7% to 18.2% with commercial insurance and from 1.57% to 8.51% with Medicare Advantage. DPP-4 inhibitor initiation increased from 3.3% to 11.7% with commercial insurance and from 2.44% to 7.68% with Medicare Advantage. Within each calendar year, the odds of initiating one of these 3 medications with Medicare Advantage as compared with commercial insurance ranged from 0.28 to 0.70 for GLP-1 RAs; from 0.21 to 0.57 for SGLT2 inhibitors; and from 0.37 to 0.73 for DPP-4 inhibitors.

We also looked at the initiation of these medications in individuals with cardiorenal comorbidities. In many cases, a drug was prescribed indiscriminately. A patient who would benefit from a GLP-1 RA because of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, or kidney disease was less likely to be prescribed a GLP-1 RA than a medication like a DPP-4 inhibitor, which usually has the same formulary tier/class but does not have any of the cardiovascular or kidney benefits. Likewise, in those with heart failure or kidney disease, an SGLT2 inhibitor would have been the appropriate choice, but these patients were too often started on a DPP-4 inhibitor, which is not advised for those with heart failure and does provide kidney benefits.

Last year, Tummalapalli et al, in their evaluation of 4135 US health plans, including commercial- or employer-based, Medicare, Medicaid, and other public health plans, identified multiple barriers to accessing SGLT2 inhibitor medications. While all plans included at least 1 SGLT2 inhibitor on their formularies, they restricted access in other ways. Prior authorizations were required by nearly half of Medicaid plans and nearly 40% of other public plans such as the Veterans Health Administration. Medicare and other public plans commonly imposed quantity limits on fills. Commercial plans frequently (up to 40%) required step therapy (use or failure of a generic diabetes medication) before approval. Copayments were also high in commercial plans, Medicare, and others.

The need for prior authorizations dominates attempts to prescribe. Centene Corporation , for example, which manages plans for private and public payers, will not approve use of an SGLT2 inhibitor until the patient fails for 3 consecutive months on a prior treatment, has established cardiovascular disease or diabetic nephropathy, or has multiple cardiovascular risk factors. These comorbidities must be documented and verified, and the prior authorizations must be completed, often resulting in substantial administrative burden to clinicians. No wonder many, especially in primary care, may be wary of prescribing drugs that come with a paperwork trail and hours spent on documentation and insurance appeals, rather than on patient care.

The same can be said for prescribing a GLP-1 RA. United Healthcare’s Oxford Benefit Management requires that clinicians show a “history of suboptimal response, contraindication, or intolerance to metformin” before prescribing any of the 8 GLP-1 RAs.

The average retail cost of 30 empagliflozin tablets, a once-daily medication, is $752. During the pandemic, 24% of the 5000 patients surveyed in an American Diabetes Association (ADA) poll used their stimulus check, relied on loans, or spent savings to pay for diabetes care. GLP-1 RA medications are even more expensive . Depending on the patient’s pharmacy benefits, they may have to pay a substantial coinsurance out of pocket even after the annual deductible is met, creating financial barriers to starting and continuing recommended, evidence-based medications. Even if patients do get the recommended medications, they may be forced to ration other aspects of their lives, including other medications, food, and other necessities.

There are other important barriers to optimal utilization of evidence-based therapies, stemming from the fundamental social determinants of health: low income, low education level, and living in a socioeconomically deprived neighborhood.

Social Determinants of Health

Diabetes prevalence is higher in patients experiencing socioeconomic and other structural barriers to health and health care. Fundamentally, 1 study showed that prevalence of diabetes was 1.4 times higher among people living on less than $15,000 a year, as opposed to those earning at least $50,000 a year.

The risk of diabetes complications is also higher in individuals experiencing food or housing insecurity, those who have low income or education level, and residents in rural and socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods. Importantly, the same patient populations are also less likely to receive timely evidence-based care, contributing to and worsening health disparities. Despite their prevalence and importance, social determinants of health (SDoH) are not routinely recognized or discussed during clinical encounters, such that improving diabetes care and health outcomes is predicated on developing a system to screen for, recognize, and address the wide range of barriers faced by our patients. If a patient cannot afford a new medication or get to the clinic on a regular basis, lacks access to healthy food, or does not have time for diabetes self-management education or to focus on their health, then their well-being will suffer.

Many of these SDoH disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority populations as the direct result of longstanding and deeply embedded systems, policies, and laws that underlie disparities in diabetes incidence, prevalence, management, and outcomes. As such, structural racism is increasingly recognized as a root cause of health disparities in diabetes and other chronic health conditions.

Proactive strategies

Since reactive care has not and cannot provide patients with the help they need and deserve, many in the diabetes care community have turned to proactive, team-based care. The Chronic Care Model, established in the 1990s, stresses decision-making support, strong team organization and delivery system design, and the wherewithal to monitor progress continually. Research has shown that the best results for patients stem from a multidisciplinary, data-driven, and proactive approach to identifying and meeting the totality of patient care needs.

The ADA stresses the importance of comprehensive, team-based care for successful management of diabetes. This includes expanding the role of teams to implement evidence-based diabetes care, using electronic health record tools to support timely and guideline-recommended delivery of services, empowering and educating patients and caregivers, eliciting and addressing financial and psychosocial barriers to care, and identifying, developing, and engaging community resources to support better health and well-being.

Recognizing the centrality of team-based care to diabetes management, our team has developed and implemented an enhanced primary care diabetes (EPCD) model across the internal medicine and family medicine practices of Mayo Clinic, first in Rochester, Minnesota and then across multiple rural and small urban sites in southeast Minnesota . This model is centered around the primary care team nurse, who partners with clinicians to oversee, enforce, and coordinate the diabetes management of patients paneled to those clinicians. Nurses proactively identify patients, engage other members of the healthcare team (eg, pharmacists, social workers, certified diabetes care and education specialists) as needed, and maintain a continuous relationship with each patient to help them achieve and maintain their goals. This model was not only effective at improving glycemic control and other indicators of diabetes care quality, but also improved nursing and clinician satisfaction.

It is important to recognize that comprehensive diabetes care comprises both medical and nonmedical interventions that address the totality of the patient’s care needs and the circumstances that hinder optimal health. Increasingly, robust data are emerging in support of nonmedical interventions that target SDoH, including structural racism as a root cause of racial and ethnic disparities in diabetes care and outcomes, with demonstrated evidence of improved health outcomes and narrowed health disparities .

It takes work, effort, and commitment to manage diabetes. But a team-based approach allows players on all sides to win.

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