By Dr. Kayathri Periasamy
With the latest wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping steadily across Sri Lanka, attention has been directed towards persons with uncontrolled, pre-existing conditions, particularly diabetes; as a sect most vulnerable to get severely ill or die because of complications caused by the virus. This has shed light on another growing concern among healthcare providers and patients, which is that patients suffering from diabetes or other chronic conditions are finding it increasingly difficult or are unable to access the medical care they require due to mandatory albeit essential curfew measures combined with a deep fear of contracting the virus in communal healthcare settings.
With a staggering 463 million adult diabetic patients present worldwide, World Diabetes Day 2020 – falling on the 14th of November- is a critical time for diabetes support communities and healthcare advocates to rally together to create awareness about this debilitating medical condition and push for progress in the standards of care and the better management of diabetic patients during a pandemic. In Sri Lanka alone, 1 in 10 adults are approximated to suffer from the disease. It is also then vital to look at ways to help stop more people from getting this disease, particularly at a time when ‘lockdown’ lifestyles are more often than not likely to be sedentary, unhealthy and stressful; an ideal background for a diabetes diagnosis.
Why is uncontrolled diabetes such a potent accelerant for COVID-19?
A recent study conducted by Lancet on Diabetes & Endocrinology screened over 61 million medical records in the U.K. to find that 30% of COVID-19 deaths can be attributed to people with diabetes. After accounting for factors such as demography and chronic medical conditions, the risk of succumbing to the virus was shown to be about three times higher for people with Type 1 diabetes and almost twice as high for Type 2, versus those without the disease.
There appears to be two primary reasons driving this predicament. Over a lifetime, poor glucose control inflicts widespread damage in our systems which can lead to strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure, eye disease, and limb amputations. The linings of blood vessels throughout the body weaken to an extent where they can’t ferry necessary nutrients adequately. Inflammation is another byproduct of poor diabetes control, which makes the body ill-prepared for the onslaught of the viral disease. Secondly, the rich environment of elevated blood glucose present in diabetic patients, makes them prone to superadded bacterial complications during the viral infection. Many diabetics also tend to have other co-morbidities such as obesity, hypertension, and heart disease, which are all factors that aggravate complications during viral illneses. These problems are seen in any infections in the setting of diabetes and not only with COVID 19. The pandemic has just highlighted the difficulties of having diabetes
What precautions can diabetic patients take?
So during this pandemic, apart from strict adherence to general COVID-19 personal safety protocols such as strict social distancing and sanitization, it is important for patients to regularly monitor their glucose levels to avoid complications caused by fluctuating blood glucose. Proper hydration is essential for good health. It is also crucial to have access to a good supply of the prescribed diabetes medications and healthy food so that patients are able to correct the situation if blood glucose levels fluctuate. Finally, sticking to a comfortable daily routine, maintaining an exercise program even within the confines of your home, reducing excessive work and having a good night’s sleep can go a long way in keeping you strong. In essence, maintaining good blood sugar levels may be their best defense against severe COVID-19.
Disruption to continuity of care for diabetes patients
A rapid assessment survey conducted by WHO among Ministries of Health across many countries, focusing on the service delivery for NCDs during the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed deepening concerns that many people living with NCDs are no longer receiving appropriate treatment or access to medicines during the COVID-19 pandemic. The more severe the transmission phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more NCD care services were disrupted.
With our country currently in the cluster transmission phase and heading towards the community transmission phase due to the large and distant spread of the first-line contacts, the threat to NCD care and especially routine and emergency care of diabetes patients worries us physicians. As healthcare providers, we too are torn between the dilemma of not wanting to expose our patients to unnecessary hospital visits and the need to ensure that all our patients have continued access to their healthcare team along with a steady supply of medicines and other diabetes care products such as glucometer strips and insulin. Unfortunately, the delay in visiting their healthcare provider when they have symptoms of complications has caused many people to present late to the hospital with heart attacks or infections. A delayed presentation, weakens the patient further.
This disruption to healthcare services is foreseen to be a huge dilemma for patients and healthcare providers alike, especially when it comes to the care of patients with diabetes and other non-communicable diseases. In Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Health, is currently providing a number of telemedicine services and has opened avenues to deliver medicines to houses without diabetic persons having to visit crowded settings
How do we counter this?
At Healthy Life Clinic, we adhere strictly to COVID-19 safety operational health protocols established according to Ministry of Health (MOH), Epidemiology Unit. All incoming patients are screened by our nurses as soon as appointments are made over the phone, to understand the nature of their illness. If there is a worry that they could have contracted COVID-19 or have been in contact with such patients, they are given the opportunity to speak to the doctor first over the phone for a detailed history. Every patient will be consulted and no one is turned away from our care.
In order to help patients overcome barriers such as curfews or even the fear of entering communal healthcare settings, our experienced, highly-regarded team of consultants conducts telehealth consultations via established, trusted telemedicine partners such as oDoc and Mydoctor.lk to maintain continuity of care throughout this pandemic. We have also moved many of our long-standing diabetes care and weight management programs online, which have proven to be effective even in the absence of a physical meeting and examination. Additionally, our social media platforms and website are constantly updated to increase awareness about this condition, along with content that informs people about the proper management and prevention of diabetes – particularly when it is thus connected to COVID-19.
(- Dr. Kayathri Periasamy is a consultant physician MBBS (UK), MRCP (UK), Board Certified in Int. Medicine (U.S.A). She is the founder of Healthy Life Clinic, Colombo 07. -)