Philadelphia’s Diabetes Crisis

Thanks to local organizations, there might be an end in sight

In 2010, Philadelphia County was home to 655,800 people living with diabetes and spent $6 billion in related medical and non-medical costs, making up nearly half of Pennsylvania’s $12.4 billion expenditure on the disease. That seems staggering, but the number is not really surprising when you consider 24 percent of PA adults were considered obese back in 2005. By 2025, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts a 44 percent increase in the number of diabetes sufferers, bringing the cost up to $9.1 billion for our county alone.

Though this health crisis certainly plagues the U.S. as a whole, the numbers suggest that there’s something about Philly in particular that enables unhealthy living. Dr. Nimidia Oviedo, president of the North Philadelphia Madrugadores Rotary Club, points to diet: “Cheesesteaks and TastyKakes and soft pretzels, everyone loves them here.” Angela Stewart, nurse practitioner and representative of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, echoes her concern about poor eating habits. “People on a budget think that they can’t afford to buy fresh, healthy food. They don’t realize they can still buy lots of frozen vegetables and other cheaper options.”

They, and many other healthcare professionals, also blame poor quality of health education in our district’s schools. “People leave not even knowing what a spleen is,” says general practitioner Larry Doroshow. Michelle Foster, director of programs for the American Diabetes Association (ADA), also stresses the “need to understand fundamentals, how what you put in your mouth affects your body.”

Whether it’s our fat-and-sugar-friendly fare or the lack of appropriate education, something drew Novo Nordisk, a global company dedicated to innovative diabetes care, to make Philly its first stop in its Community Care program. At its first town hall address on June 29th at the Museum of Art, Novo Nordisk awarded sponsorships totaling $85,000 to four local organizations: the ADA, Madrugadores Rotary Club, the Medical Society of Eastern Pennsylvania, and Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. All groups promise to “stem the tide of Philadelphia’s diabetes epidemic.”

Representatives from each group took the podium to present how they’ll be using the grant money, outlining their elements, goals and expected results. Because minority groups bear the brunt of the diabetes crisis (African Americans and Hispanic Americans made up one-third of the total for 2010), the programs reach out specifically to these communities in an effort to increase awareness about diabetes signs and symptoms, complications, treatments, and most importantly, prevention.

The ADA hopes to reach more than 8,000 people annually with two programs directed at the African American and Hispanic American communities. Another effort at North Philly’s Edison High School will take a group of non-diabetic students and teach them about diabetes—namely, how to prevent or control it with a healthy diet—while cultivating their leadership skills so they can then instruct their classmates and friends. The Medical Society of Eastern Pennsylvania’s Physicians-On-Air aims to reach African Americans in their 20s and 30s—a perfect target audience for diabetes prevention—with its 90-minute informational radio program on 900 AM WURD.

According to a study by the Institute for Alternative Futures, if 50 percent of all people with pre-diabetes made simple changes like modest weight loss and increased physical activity, the number of new diabetes cases in Philadelphia could decrease by as much as 6,400 a year. If that continued until 2025, we could save about $5.1 billion. If the programs proposed on Wednesday succeed, and if the excitement and camaraderie among attendees is a sign of future collaborative efforts, these goals are not unattainable. Philly may finally be able to transform itself from one America’s fattest cities, into one of its healthiest. — Kathryn Siegel