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Prevention – and tech – key to curbing SA’s diabetes epidemic

15 November 2018Momentum Health

Using technology to predict healthcare events an industry first for SA, while on-going preventative education remains crucial

With the prevalence of diabetes increasing at a rapid rate in South Africa, it is predicted that by 2040, the sugar-fuelled disease will overtake tuberculosis (TB) to become the country’s leading cause of death. This is according to a recent study released by medical journal, The Lancet, which reveals that the world is experiencing a global shift in causes of deaths, from infectious diseases such as TB, to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

In light of this – and considering that November is Diabetes Awareness month, with World Diabetes Day on 14 November – Damian McHugh, Head of Health Marketing and Growth at Momentum, urges all South Africans to acknowledge the severity of diabetes and start treating their health like the invaluable asset that it is.

Leading the industry with Ai & Machine Learning health event prediction
McHugh explains that Momentum’s health solutions team is currently pioneering the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, using this cutting edge technology capability in the clinical risk-management space.

“Over the past year, our Machine Learning and Human Resource Management teams have collaborated closely to build and pilot numerous algorithms, capable of predicting healthcare events before they occur and driving improved health outcomes for patients,” he explains. “Machine learning capabilities allow for hyper-personalisation, identifying non-traditional and peripheral links within our data, which we build into algorithms in an effort to early-detect readmissions and predict the onset of disease and related illness.”

Currently in its development stage, and with a view to extend this type of predictive capability throughout various parts of Momentum’s health and life insurance business, early trials amongst diabetes patients showed a 15 – 20% higher accuracy rate in predicting which patients will require hospitalisation, based on approximately 90 different data points.

“This allows us to intervene earlier and achieve our objective of creating more health for our members,” McHugh continues. He adds that similar programmes have since been completed for hospitalisation and readmission prediction algorithms for psychiatric, cardiovascular disease, chronic renal disease and heart failure groups, among others.

Lifestyle changes and education undeniable key factors
“Further to the technological advances that assist healthcare providers to manage this disease, it is crucial that South Africans begin making some serious lifestyle changes because, unlike infectious diseases, many cases of diabetes are preventable. In fact, the International Diabetes Federation estimates that up to 80% of cases of type 2 diabetes – which is the most common type of diabetes affecting South Africans – can be prevented through the adoption of a healthy lifestyle.”

When asked to differentiate between type 1 and 2 diabetes, McHugh says that the former is usually caused by an auto-immune reaction, while the latter is more commonly related to poor lifestyle choices. “The important thing to know, however, is that 90% of the diabetes cases in South Africa are type 2, which means many people are suffering from a disease that they could have prevented.

Creating a healthier environment is a collective effort
“Major risk factors of diabetes include increased weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels – all of which can be managed to a certain extent through regular exercise, a balanced and healthy diet that limits processed foods, and by keeping a healthy weight. Smokers are also said to be more likely to develop diabetes, so the sooner South Africans quit, the better!”

Increasing general awareness of diabetes is not only necessary for preventative measures, but also so that the disease can be properly diagnosed and managed, McHugh says. “The reality in South Africa is that approximately one in two people with diabetes remain undiagnosed as access to education programmes about the disease remain limited. This opens the door to a number of other ailments, as diabetes is a leading cause of heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and lower limb amputation.”

The good news is that government and policy-makers are taking measures to influence South Africans’ health choices, says McHugh. “Laws and regulations, ranging from tobacco controls to a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, are aimed at promoting a healthier lifestyle. The country has also moved to reduce the salt content in processed food – all of which are steps in the right direction.”

Making a positive impact on South Africa’s diabetes outlook
However, South Africa remains on the verge of a diabetes epidemic, and a lifestyle shift needs to occur across the country immediately to prevent matters from getting worse. “There were 1,826,100 cases of diabetes in South Africa in 2017, and while medical trends suggest that this figure is only going to rise over the coming years, many future cases can be prevented if people educate themselves on what diabetes is, its risk factors, how to prevent it, and how best to manage it once diagnosed.

“This is why we at Momentum remain committed to being there for South Africans at critical points in their lives – indeed, suffering from health issues are such times. Our goal is to enable them to maintain their momentum and stay on track for their unique journey to success, with our support.

“To this end, we have prioritised both advancing our own capabilities, while spreading awareness about this deathly disease and urge all South Africans to start making healthier choices from today. After all, your health is an asset – possibly the most valuable, irreplaceable asset you will ever own. So just as you would for any other valuable assets, make your healthcare and decisions with wisdom and foresight,” McHugh concludes.

 

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