Focusing on people with type 2 diabetes most at risk
Poor glycaemic control is relatively common among people with diabetes. A New Zealand review of almost 30 000 patients
attending annual diabetes checks found that 29% had HbA1c levels above 64 mmol/mol.1 There were
marked differences between ethnicities; 50% of Pacific peoples, 43% of Māori and 36% of Asian-Indian people had levels
above 64 mmol/mol.1
The reasons why people with type 2 diabetes have poor glycaemic control, i.e. HbA1c > 64 mmol/mol, are
numerous and complex. Health professionals need to effectively engage with patients to understand what these reasons are.
A shared decision-making approach to management allows patients and health professionals to form an agreement on diabetes
care that may also correct previous clinical assumptions, e.g. concerning treatment adherence, health literacy or motivation.
To do this well, primary care teams need to have a good understanding of the patient’s background, beliefs and priorities.
For some patients this may even mean accepting that a glycaemic target higher than 64 mmol/mol is appropriate, e.g. for
an older patient living alone. This should not be regarded as a failure by the patient or the health professional. However,
poor glycaemic control is always a signal for intensification of management and HbA1c is only one measure of
cardiovascular risk. For many patients diabetes management will also involve intensive management of other risk factors
such as obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia and smoking.
This collaborative approach to diabetes care incorporates many aspects of motivational interviewing and can be combined
with this technique. The process of engaging people with type 2 diabetes and assisting them to manage their own health
is perhaps the most significant and challenging aspect of their care.
Individual, patient-centred management of diabetes
There is increasing evidence that an individual and patient-centred approach to the management of type 2 diabetes is
effective.2, 3 In an ethnically diverse United Kingdom population of over 28 000 patients with type 2 diabetes
it was found that after being invited to explore reasons for their poor glycaemic control and developing an individualised
management plan, 55% of patients with an HbA1c ≥ 86 mmol/mol improved their HbA1c by at least 10
mmol/mol at six month review.4
An individual approach to diabetes care is now favoured because guidelines for chronic conditions are
generally based on clinical trials of highly selected participants, with many of the “real-world” patients in general
practice populations being excluded due to the presence of co-morbidities or other factors. In addition, the results of
clinical trials investigating targets for glycaemic control, e.g. UKPDS, ACCORD, ADVANCE and VADT, collectively demonstrate
that a hard target-based approach to the management of type 2 diabetes can be harmful to some patients, e.g. older patients
with high cardiovascular risk.3
Diabetes is more prevalent in Māori, Pacific and Asian-Indian people and people living in low socioeconomic
areas. In New Zealand, during 2011/12, the rate of type 2 diabetes for people living in the most deprived areas was 8.6%,
compared with 2.7% for people living in the least deprived areas.5 Approximately 10% of Pacific adults in
New Zealand have been diagnosed with diabetes, diabetes rates among Māori (7%) are over twice that of non-Māori and Asian
males have a higher rate of diagnosed diabetes (8.4%) compared to other adults.5 Patients will respond differently
to advice from health professionals depending on their age, economic situation, ethnicity and level of health literacy.
Management is likely to be more effective when these differences are clearly in mind. Cultural competency, which is essentially
respectful and effective communication, is just as important as clinical and ethical competency in a healthcare interaction.
Healthcare professionals must be both understanding and understandable, and this is essential in managing patients with
diabetes to achieve successful health outcomes and address disparities.
Understanding patients with poor glycaemic control
Introducing the idea of an optimal target for glycaemic control, i.e. 50 – 55 mmol/mol, as “the speed limit” can help
patients to understand that HbA1c levels above this level are increasingly unsafe. However, this target may
not be achievable, or even appropriate, for many patients. Glycaemic targets should therefore be mutually agreed on between
the patient and clinician, i.e. shared decision-making. This recognises that not all patients have the same values or
priorities. For example, a small study of older people with type 2 diabetes found that almost half ranked maintaining
independence as their most important outcome, while just over one-quarter ranked staying alive highest.6 Revisiting the
patient’s preferences each time their clinical condition changes is also a routine part of diabetes treatment as patient’s
priorities may change over time.6
If patients are unable to achieve agreed glycaemic targets, health professionals need to make additional efforts to
engage with them. Regular attendance at diabetes reviews is associated with improved glycaemic control. In the United
Kingdom, patients who missed more than 30% of diabetes reviews were reported to have an average HbA1c 15 –
16 mmol/mol higher than patients who missed less than 30% of reviews.4
Education is an important aspect of diabetes management. For some patients, e.g. where health literacy
is an issue or English is not a first language, it may be necessary to regularly return to basics and explain how they
came to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and to revisit general concepts in diabetes education. Patients and their family/whānau
are asked to understand and act on lifestyle changes and other interventions on a daily basis, but these can compete with
many other aspects of a patient’s life that also require time and energy. Education is an ongoing process that includes
refining and reinforcing the patient’s knowledge of their condition. This process is particularly important in communities
where understanding and being understood when talking with health professionals is highly valued, e.g. among many Māori
and Pacific patients.
What does the patient believe about diabetes?
Beliefs that patients hold about diabetes can be broadly divided into five categories:7
- Disease identity, i.e. what type 2 diabetes means to them
- The cause of type 2 diabetes, e.g. the belief that it is just inherited from parents
- Timeline, i.e. what is the course of type 2 diabetes and how long will it last
- The consequences of type 2 diabetes, e.g. the belief that introducing insulin means you are going to die soon
- Cure/control, i.e. how well the patient will be able to recover from, and control, their diabetes
The strength of a patient’s belief in their ability to influence their own health is a predictor for both adherence
to physical activity and life satisfaction.8 A survey of 82 Tongan and New Zealand European people with type
2 diabetes in the Auckland region found that both groups had similar degrees of understanding about type 2 diabetes.7 However,
compared with the New Zealand European group, Tongan people were more likely to: view type 2 diabetes as a cyclical or
acute illness, attribute the disease to external factors (e.g. pollution or God’s will), be emotionally distressed by
type 2 diabetes and have less confidence in their ability to manage their condition and think anti-diabetic medicines
were not necessary.7
A patient’s belief about the necessity of taking anti-diabetes medicines can be influenced by factors such as: fear,
a fatalistic acceptance of the disease due to a family history, or by a family or whānau’s negative experience with treatment,
e.g. gastrointestinal effects experienced after metformin was started at a high dose. It is therefore important to discuss
any previous experiences a patient has had with diabetes and its treatment.
What matters to the patient – not what is the matter with the patient
Engaging with patients involves understanding their values and priorities. For example:6
- How important is quality of life to them?
- How motivated is the patient to prevent diabetes-related complications?
- What is the patient’s attitude towards insulin and self-injection?
- Is the patient concerned about hypoglycaemia?
This approach emphasises the importance of quality of life and maintenance of function, rather than focusing purely
on glycaemic control. This discussion should be repeated each time the patient’s clinical situation changes.
Families/whānau may influence treatment decisions
The degree to which patient decisions are influenced by family members is clinically relevant to diabetes management.
Among some families a “collective culture” may exist, where decisions about medical interventions for individuals are
decided upon by the whole family. If the patient has the expectation that their family will be involved with treatment
decisions then it is appropriate to ask key family members to also attend consultations. Some parents may also place less
importance on their own health if they are focused on nurturing and supporting their children. Many of these children
and grandchildren are at increased risk of developing diabetes and this can be presented as an opportunity to be a better
role model of health behaviours for future generations.
Getting the most out of your practice management system
The Practice Management System (PMS) is useful for identifying patients within practice populations who have type 2
diabetes. Some PMS products have a reporting function built-in that allows for the automatic identification of patients
with an HbA1c > 64 mmol/mol, e.g. bestpractice Intelligence. Once identified patients can be offered a
diabetes review via the normal patient recall process.
For further information, see: “Five tips for getting the most out of your Practice
Management System”, BPJ 56 (Nov, 2013).
Discussing reasons for poor control
Raising the issue of poor diabetes control often results in feelings of guilt and/or personal failure for patients.9 This
can be overcome by explaining that intensification of type 2 diabetes treatment is usually inevitable due to reduced pancreatic
beta-cell function over time.9
Barriers to different components of the diabetes management plan should be discussed separately. Problems with concordance
with dietary advice and physical exercise are consistently reported by patients and clinicians to be the most significant
reason for poor glycaemic control.4, 10 In general, the longer a patient has had diabetes the more likely
they are to eat inappropriately and the less likely they are to exercise.8
Depression is twice as prevalent in people with type 2 diabetes compared with the general population
and should always be considered in patients who are having problems adhering to a lifestyle regimen.8 Patients
with depression are less likely to adhere to dietary advice and exercise programmes and more likely to have poor glycaemic
control and experience diabetes related complications.8 Depression is also associated with obesity and other
Chronic pain is frequently experienced by people with type 2 diabetes; it is reported to be present
in up to 60% of older patients with diabetes.6 Pain should also be considered as a potential reason for non-adherence
to lifestyle changes, e.g. pain may reduce a patient’s ability to exercise. The underlying cause of pain may be a co-morbidity,
e.g. osteoarthritis or gout, or may be due to diabetes itself, e.g. peripheral neuropathy or peripheral vascular disease.6
Concordance with dietary advice
It is important for health professionals to acknowledge that it can be very difficult for patients to accept and implement
radical changes in diet, especially if this involves buying and eating foods that are very different from the patient’s
usual diet. There may also be cultural reasons why some foods are eaten that are not ideal, e.g. frequent consumption
of a traditional food with a high glycaemic index, such as white rice.8 Factors known to place patients at
high-risk for non-concordance with dietary advice include: financial hardship, social pressure to eat, being alone and
feeling bored, stress, relationship conflict and social events or holidays.8 A sudden change in the patient’s
HbA1c level may correlate with a change in circumstance that is causing stress or interfering with patterns
of behaviour, resulting in inappropriate food choices. Food diaries allow patients to keep track of what foods they are
eating and can be used as an educational aid to explain how glycaemic control is linked to food intake.
Other strategies that may assist patients with dietary changes include encouraging them to:
- Be present when food is purchased and prepared to ensure that appropriate choices are made, e.g. choosing foods low
in carbohydrates, saturated fat and kilojoules and using healthy cooking methods
- Compare prices at supermarkets and local produce stores so healthy food can be purchased at the least expense
- Use their standing within the family/whānau/community to make healthy food choices more acceptable for everyone
Concordance with exercise advice
Green prescriptions are a health professional’s written advice to be physically active. A two-year study involving over
1000 “less-active” women in New Zealand aged between 40 – 74 years, who were given a green prescription and telephone
support, found at 12 and 24 month follow-up there were significant improvements in physical activity.11 Emphasising
the importance to patients of cardiovascular fitness in addition to weight loss can provide added motivation for patients
starting exercise programmes. Improving fitness is a marker of positive change and will help the patient maintain motivation
if weight loss is occurring slowly. Exercise programmes need to be appropriate for the individual patient and take into
account factors such as age, weight, mobility and co-morbidities, e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Asking the
patient to suggest a level of activity they feel they can commit to on a daily basis is a good starting point. Consider
if there are any barriers to exercise that can be overcome, e.g. osteoarthritis may make walking difficult; aqua jogging
may be a suitable alternative.
It is useful to be aware of what local activities and organised exercise programmes are available to recommend to patients.
Whānau ora collectives are increasingly promoting sport as a medicine and facilitating participation in events such as
Concordance with pharmacological treatment
It is estimated that 75% of patients with a long-term condition requiring medicines are concordant with treatment.8 However,
patients with type 2 diabetes and poor glycaemic control are over three times more likely to be non-concordant with their
treatment, than patients with acceptable glycaemic control.10 A study of patients with type 2 diabetes found
that approximately one in seven patients with poor glycaemic control picked up less than 60% of their prescriptions from
a community pharmacy.4 All patients with type 2 diabetes may be referred for a Long Term Conditions (LTC)
assessment by a Pharmacist. If eligible, this will involve more regular contact between the patient and the Pharmacist
as well as allowing the Pharmacist an opportunity to address barriers.
For further information, see: “New service
model for community pharmacy”, BPJ 45 (Aug, 2012).
Collecting medicine from the pharmacy does not mean that it is being taken. Dose omission is the most common form of
medicine non-concordance, e.g. patients prescribed metformin three times a day may only take one or two doses, and patients
prescribed metformin once daily may miss their dose and take a double dose the next day.8 Blister packaging of medicines
(or medicine trays), advising patients to take medicines with meals or setting cell phone reminders may help to increase
adherence with treatments.
Education can improve self-management of type 2 diabetes
A patient’s understanding of diabetes should be constantly revisited. Education can improve treatment adherence and
lead to better outcomes.9 Checking for understanding is an important part of this process as there may be
differences between what a health professional believes has been agreed and what a patient has understood.
Patients and their families/whānau need to understand the link between glycaemic control and symptoms. Fatigue and sleepiness
is a common symptom of poor glycaemic control; education helps patients recognise this link. If a patient improves their
control an increase in energy levels and a sense of wellbeing becomes a “selling point” for adherence to medicine regimens
and lifestyle change.
Education should also focus on the action of anti-diabetes medicines and the need for regular dosing. This may also
overcome beliefs such as that type 2 diabetes is a short-term condition or that diabetes-related complications are inevitable.
Addressing patient concerns will often provide learning opportunities. For example, if a patient taking insulin experiences
hypoglycaemia, explaining why it has happened and risk factors, e.g. missing meals, enables patients to recognise symptoms
and manage them proactively.
Group-based diabetes education sessions have the advantage of allowing patients with type 2 diabetes to meet each other
and discuss management strategies. A meta-analysis of group-based diabetes self-management programmes concluded that this
approach resulted in improvements in clinical, lifestyle and psychosocial outcomes.12 There may also be patients
within the practice who are willing to act as a “champion” and be contacted by other patients recently diagnosed with
diabetes for peer support.
Good management improves the “total health” of patients with diabetes
Managing patients with co-morbidities
Managing patients with diabetes involves more than just maintaining glycaemic control. Approximately half of all adults
with diabetes have at least one chronic co-morbidity, which can make treatment decisions more complex.6
Consider if one condition is clinically dominant as this may help guide treatment decisions. For example,
in a patient who has known cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, medicines that reduce blood pressure or hyperlipidaemia
are likely to significantly lower cardiovascular risk. However, the same patient may not benefit as much overall from
a hard approach to glycaemic control, which increases the risk of hypoglycaemia. In a study of over 11 000 patients aged
over 55 years with type 2 diabetes, severe hypoglycaemia was strongly associated with an increased risk of major macrovascular
and microvascular events as well as cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.13 Similar associations were seen
between severe hypoglycaemia and an increased risk of respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological conditions.13
Hypertension should be treated to a target of < 130/80 mmHg.2 Lower blood pressure targets
should be approached with caution as a systolic blood pressure of < 120 mmHg is associated with a greater frequency
of adverse effects in people with type 2 diabetes.2 Treatment of hypertension should include restrictions
to dietary salt intake. Reducing daily salt intake by one teaspoon (5 g) per day is estimated to reduce systolic blood
pressure by 5 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 3 mmHg.2
For further information, see: “Hypertension
in adults: The silent killer”, BPJ 54 (Aug, 2013).
Dyslipidaemia should be discussed and, where appropriate, statin treatment initiated. The optimal lipid
treatment targets for patients with diabetes are:2
- LDL cholesterol < 2.0 mmol/L; this is the primary lipid indicator for management of cardiovascular risk
- HDL cholesterol ≥ 1.0 mmol/L
- Total cholesterol (TC) < 4.0 mmol/L
- TC : HDL ratio < 4.0
- Triglycerides < 1.7 mmol/L
Microalbuminuria (urine albumin:creatinine ratio [ACR] > 2.5 mg/mmol in males or > 3.5 mg/mmol in females)
is the earliest sign of diabetic kidney disease and requires prompt treatment.2 Māori, Pacific and
South Asian people with type 2 diabetes are particularly at risk of kidney disease and require more frequent monitoring.2 Treatment
with an angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor or an angiotensin II receptor blocker (ARB) is recommended for
patients with type 2 diabetes and microalbuminuria regardless of whether hypertension is present.2 Patients
with diabetes and an ACR ≥ 30 mg/mmol measured on two occasions are classified as having a five-year cardiovascular risk
greater than 20% and require intensive management to reduce risk factors.2
Smoking cessation advice and support should be given to all patients with type 2 diabetes who smoke.
The ABC tool is recommended: “Ask about smoking status, give Brief advice and make an offer of help to stop, and provide
evidence-based Cessation support”.14
For further information see: “ Smoking
status and cessation support”, BPJ 40 (Nov, 2011).
Gout is common in people with type 2 diabetes and should be managed effectively to reduce the risk
of cardiovascular disease. An Auckland study of over 18 000 people with type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance
found that 16% of people with type 2 diabetes had gout.15 The prevalence of gout was higher among Māori (29%)
and Pacific peoples (24%) with type 2 diabetes.15
For further information see: “Gout:
an alarm bell for diabetes and cardiovascular disease”, BPJ 37 (Aug, 2011).
Intensifying treatment for diabetes
Patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are often started on metformin, particularly if they are overweight. The need
for additional oral medicines, e.g. a sulfonylurea, should be considered in patients with poor control who are not already
taking these medicines.
Insulin initiation should not be delayed in patients with poor glycaemic control as this can result
in the development of long-term complications. Ideally, the possibility of insulin initiation will have been discussed
with the patient from when they were first diagnosed with diabetes. Treatment intensification should involve revisiting
this discussion to explore fears or myths the patient may have and to provide evidence-based advice for the patient about
insulin initiation. This may include acknowledging feelings of personal failure, perceptions of a loss of control, concerns
about adherence to the insulin regimen, fear of needles or concerns about hypoglycaemia.16 Explain to the
patient that insulin is the most effective glucose-lowering medicine and that over half of patients with type 2 diabetes
are reported to eventually require insulin to achieve good glycaemic control.16 New Zealand guidelines recommend
that all patients with type 2 diabetes and poor glycaemic control should strongly consider starting insulin.2
For more information see: “Initiating
insulin for people with type 2 diabetes”, BPJ 42 (Feb, 2012).
Patients with type 2 diabetes require regular follow-up of all aspects of their care plan as well as regular foot and
Foot ulceration in patients with type 2 diabetes can result in amputation. Good glycaemic control and
the management of cardiovascular co-morbidities can reduce the peripheral neuropathy and peripheral artery disease that
cause foot ulceration. Patients should be encouraged to regularly check their feet, or ask a family member to do so, and
should also have their feet checked by a health professional at least once a year and every three months if they have
a high risk of developing foot complications.
Risk factors for diabetic foot disease include:2
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Previous amputation or ulceration
- The presence of plantar callus
- Joint deformity
- Visual or mobility problems
Wearing appropriate footwear that does not cause abrasions is important to help prevent diabetic foot disease.
Patients with type 2 diabetes should undergo retinopathy testing every two years or annually if diabetic
retinopathy is present.2 Diabetic retinopathy causing vision loss is a common complication of diabetes but
patients are often asymptomatic until retinopathy is well progressed.
For further information see: “Diabetes
follow-up: what are the PHO Performance Programme indicators and how are they best achieved?”, BPJ 39 (Oct, 2011).
Referral to a diabetes management programme
Patients with type 2 diabetes can be referred to a diabetes management programme. Typically, these services involve
diabetes nurse specialists, diabetes educators and dieticians with strong local knowledge and skills in working with patients
and their families/whānau.
Patients with poor glycaemic control who are at high risk of developing severe and/or additional diabetes-related complications,
can also be referred to secondary care diabetes services.
This includes patients with:2
- A previous cardiac event, stroke or transient ischemia attack
- eGFR < 45 ml/min/1.73m2 and/or ACR > 30 mg/mmol
- Severe retinopathy or moderate maculopathy in either eye
- A previous amputation or ulceration
- Peripheral arterial disease or previous leg vascular disease
Nurse-led diabetes clinics
The New Zealand Society for the Study of Diabetes (NZSSD) provides diabetes e-learning resources for nurses in primary
care, based on the National Diabetes Nursing Knowledge and Skills Framework. This is useful for general practices who
want to initiate their own diabetes management programmes.
Nurse-led clinics typically involve a nurse being responsible for maintaining a register of all patients in the practice
with diabetes and ensuring that patient recall, monitoring and review is carried out. Many DHBs have dedicated Diabetes
Nurse Specialists available to liaise with primary care teams to best meet individual practice needs as well run individual
or group-based diabetes education sessions.
For further information visit:
www.nzssd.org.nz and www.nzno.org.nz