Investigators: Downing diabetes damages - My29 WFTC Minneapolis-St. Paul

Investigators: Downing diabetes damages

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Flickr/Creative Commons/Jill A. Brown Flickr/Creative Commons/Jill A. Brown

The FOX 9 Investigators spoke to a Twin Cities executive whose own health scare prompted her to look at medical costs and care in a new way -- and her response is catching on.

Mary Brainerd runs a major corporation employing over 12,000, and that business directly impacts the lives of over one million people.

"It is the stories people tell that really have an impact on what you want to do," Brainerd, president and CEO of HealthPartners, told FOX 9 News.

Brainerd's personal experience with her own health scare drove her to make the company provide better care at lower costs.

"It was a life-changing experience to hear the word cancer applied to you," Brainerd admitted. "I was terrified. I think I tried to slice an apple and I think I almost cut my finger off. Seriously, I could not believe that was me."

Brainerd said she was a successful executive enjoying life in one moment, but in the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she found herself a patient struggling to navigate an intimidating health care maze along with thousands of other women.

"When you have a cancer diagnosis, everything feels big -- even a small inconsistency would shake your trust," she said.

Soon, Brainerd found herself frustrated that the oncologist, surgeon and other doctors each had different recommendations about her follow-up care.

"That would shake me up," Brainerd said.

Unlike the average patient, however, Brainerd was in a position to systematically change things.

"We have really done a lot to get caregivers to work as a team, to get centers that really excel at focusing on a patient with a condition," Brainerd explained.

Now, HealthPartners' team playbook is all about better coordination in the hopes that it will provide better care and better outcomes while providing more bang for the patients' buck.

Diabetes is a disease that devours more than $2 billion in health care costs by itself each year in Minnesota, but HealthPartners created a game plan to tackle the disease in just five plays.

1. Make sure blood-sugar levels are kept in check

2. Don't let bad cholesterol climb over 100

3. Keep blood pressure below 140 over 90

4. Take aspirin daily

5. No smoking

Sticking to that plan can help diabetics avoid serious and costly complications, such as a $35,000 heart attack or a $26,000 leg amputation.

"There's great data that shows if you get diabetics to go with those five parameters up front, rates of those complications plummet," said Dr. Annie Ideker.

In one year, HealthPaterners saw 360 fewer heart attacks and 68 fewer leg amputations among patients who followed the playbook.

"Avoided hospitalizations, avoided heart attacks, avoided emergency room visits -- huge, huge benefits," said Brainerd.

The coordination component was a big priority for Brainerd after her experience with breast cancer, but follow-through and encouragement are also involved. The health teams monitor how well each patient is doing and coach them to stay on target through frequent phone calls, which also help remind patients about tests and medications that could help them.

Each month, HealthPartners publishes rankings that show which teams have the most diabetic patients sticking to the playbook -- and workers say that fosters some friendly competition and helps them learn. Ideker led her team to the top of the standings, with 71 percent of her patients meeting the five goals of their care.

Other medical groups are starting to adopt this approach to health care, and Brainerd said that's because everyone wants to find ways to keep patients healthier while keeping costs down.

"It's not just passively waiting for patients to show up in exam rooms," she said. "It is planning and it is proactive. It is team-based and the results are really clear."

The results can be seen on bank statements too. The average cost of health care for a diabetic patient following the five-step plan is about $1,500 annually, but those who don't can pay out about $20,000.

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