UC-Merced Students Tap Telehealth Tools To Treat Diabetes

MERCED — Business students at UC-Merced are launching an ambitious telehealth project to help underserved women in the Central Valley manage their gestational diabetes without having to make multiple doctor visits.

Through the project, patients will be able to send results of their blood sugar tests electronically to their health care providers.

By allowing data to be digitally transferred from blood sugar monitor to doctor, physicians can obtain necessary information without having to see patients directly, and patients can avoid multiple office visits.

“When it comes to health care, the Central Valley is vastly underserved,” said Jessica Gibson, a senior majoring in management at UC-Merced. “The goal is to lower costs for patients and to use devices such as these that actually make the patient healthier in the long run.”

The project addresses disparity issues for women who don’t have adequate access to medical care. “There are so many physical, financial and cultural barriers for people to go to the doctor,” Gibson said. These include transportation, money and language, especially for Hispanic and Hmong patients.

Gestational diabetes occurs when women who are pregnant have higher than normal blood glucose levels. During pregnancy, these women are at a higher risk of developing preeclampsia. If unmanaged, women with gestational diabetes have a 40% to 60% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes within the next five to 10 years, according to the California Diabetes Program.

Diabetes can lead to many health problems, including blindness, amputations and kidney failure. People with diabetes are also two to four times more likely than those without diabetes to have strokes or heart attacks, according to CDC.

Infants of women with diabetes can have developmental problems, jaundice and increased body mass, which causes difficulties with metabolic regulation.

Student Project Began Through SIFE

The 12 business students who are involved in the UC-Merced telemedicine project started it as members of the university’s chapter of Students in Free Enterprise, an international not-for-profit organization sponsored by corporations. SIFE students use business skills and concepts to develop sustainable projects that help people in need worldwide.

“It’s an extremely unique undergraduate experience because it brings together the most ambitious business students and allows them to be completely innovative,” said Gibson, who has served as a past SIFE president. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

SIFE is a great program for students because there is the potential to do extremely far-reaching, meaningful projects, said UC-Merced management lecturer and SIFE adviser S.A. Davis.

Davis said she suggested telehealth to the SIFE students because it could benefit large numbers of people and build on its own success of helping people manage the disease. “Diabetes is one of the largest problems in the Central Valley,” Davis said.

Jared Calinisan, a junior in management and a SIFE project manager, said SIFE is a great way for students to get involved in the community. “Students learn communication, leadership and research skills while working towards a cause that really changes a lot of lives,” he said.

Project Focuses on Small Central Valley Community

The students will initially focus their project on the small community of Dos Palos, near Merced. “Dos Palos is an area that we were encouraged to pursue because it is underdeveloped and lacking resources,” said Calinisan. Dos Palos has a population of about 5,000.

The students are in the first stage of the project and are writing an educational plan that will help women with gestational diabetes in Dos Palos understand the importance of monitoring the disease, as well as managing it with diet and nutrition.

They also are working to pinpoint the barriers to improving the high rates of diabetes in the Central Valley, Gibson said. She added, “We don’t know how many people know it can be reversed or how quickly it can take your sight. In order to have a quicker impact, we need to launch some kind of educational campaign.”

From there, the students will move on to the second stage of the project and actively court sponsors or apply for grants to pay for telemonitoring devices.

Pilot Seen as Start of Valley-Wide Effort

If the pilot project is successful, the students hope to launch a bigger telehealth effort to track patients with Type 2 diabetes in the entire Central Valley.

“Since we’re SIFE, we hope to partner with different medical centers and set up telehealth projects in California. We’ve only reached out to Mercy Medical and Merced Diabetes Center, and they’ve been really enthusiastic about the idea,” said Calinisan.

In the Central Valley, nearly 250,000 adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the 2007 California Health Interview Survey, conducted by researchers at UCLA.

According to the survey, the rate of diabetes among adults in California is 7.8%. In the Central Valley, it is even higher at 9.4%.

The UC-Merced students said they are dedicated to the project because it has an ultimate goal of lowering health care costs in the state.

“The statistics in the Central Valley are comparable to a third-world country,” Calinisan said, adding, “Complications are a huge part, blindness, loss of limbs. Also, those complications are costly to California. By targeting the patients and helping them prevent those complications, it also cuts down on fees for hospitals.”

Gibson said, “It’s recognized by everybody that there is a huge amount of money that’s wasted in health care. Telehealth is the future of health care in a lot of ways.”

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