How one GP saved thousands on diabetes care

The best approach to reversing Type 2 diabetes is a hotly contested subject. While experts agree that sustained weight loss is a fundamental part of the process, the diet a person should adopt to achieve that weight loss, and improve their glycaemic control, is less commonly agreed upon. Some studies have shown promising results for the very-low-calorie-diet approach, while others suggest the Mediterranean diet holds the key to success. What Dr David Unwin discovered in 2013 was that for certain diabetes care patients, a low carb diet may trump all others.

Conventional wisdom at the time was to medicate rather than prevent, with prescribing budgets eaten up by diabetes drugs as diagnoses soared across the UK. Dr Unwin had spent a quarter of a century recommending traditional drug treatment for diabetes care, in line with NHS treatment guidelines.

Improved Diabetes Care With Low Carb Diet

Then he stumbled upon the low-carb approach. Championed by prominent advocates diabetes.co.uk and others, the diet showed serious promise in improving glycaemic control for people with diabetes. He began recommending it to his patients as an alternative to medication and, so as to fully understand the difficulties his patients may face in sticking to low-carb, also adopted the diet himself.

“Back in 2013, our GP practice had a very ‘drug centred’ approach to Type 2 diabetes,” he says. “Lifestyle medicine was almost unheard of. The partners felt that rather than going on about dietary carbs I should concentrate on seeing properly sick people. This meant the only way forward was to work for free in my own time on a Monday evening. My wife came in to help me staff the surgery.

“After six months, the partners could see my results were beating what they could do with drugs, particularly when the first few patients managed to come off medication. Initially I was unsure about the low carb approach so I joined my patients on the diet and we learnt together, trialling recipes we found on the internet. We even arranged practice based cooking demos.

Diabetes Care That Could Potentially Save NHS Millions!

In 2015/16, Dr Unwin’s practice saved £40,000 on drugs. To put that in perspective, if every one of the UK’s 7,435 practices were to make an equal saving, the NHS would be £297 million better off each year. So the practice partners were, by then, firmly on side – but challenging official treatment advice across the whole of the health service was another matter entirely.

Dr Unwin was very vocal about his patients’ successes with low-carb online and in the press, publishing extensive research into the approach as an alternative to drug therapy. He also developed a peer-reviewed e-learning module for GPs explaining the science behind the low carb approach, its impact on glycaemic control and how to discuss it with patients, which won him the prestigious accolade of NHS Innovator of the Year. Last week, it was chosen by the Royal College of General Practitioners as its Course of the Month for November.

“My generation of doctors was brought up with a deep distrust of ‘the media’,” he says. “My partners were worried the first time I appeared in The Daily Mail. Despite the risks I feel the internet is democratising medicine – making relevant information so available.

“I have come to feel we can’t just ignore the internet; it’s not going to go away, so we should join in. It’s a great way to ‘find your tribe’ and become more effective. The low carb movement has a huge presence on social media. There are risks though, particularly around the temptation to give advice. So often I have to explain we supply general information online. Personal advice is something you get from your own doctor!”

Continued Efforts To Promote Lifestyle Change

For the next three years, David plans to continue encouraging doctors to promote lifestyle change over medication. “I think the idea of reversing type 2 diabetes or more properly putting it into remission without drugs is probably a valid goal for about 50% of people with diabetes.

“The longest remission in my practice is 9 years. I feel this is such a hopeful message, that there is so much people can do themselves to make a difference by cutting back on the dietary sources of glucose.

“I know that for my first 25 years of medicine I failed to make this clear enough and was too quick to prescribe lifelong medication. My goal is to help other doctors tap into the wonderful potential of people to help themselves.”

Dr David Unwin will share insights from his experience at Diabetes Professional Care 2018, 15:15-15:45 Wednesday 14 November. Register for your free place at https://www.diabetesprofessionalcare.com

Type 2 Diabetes Reversal | How Did She Do It?

Meet Sheinaz. She’s a GP Practice Manager in Gateshead, Newcastle, and she was largely sceptical of the power of digital interventions to help people Type 2 diabetes change their lifestyle and better manage their condition. Until she tried one out for herself.

On 13 January 2018, Sheinaz was diagnosed with diabetes. Her GP told her that her HbA1c level, an indicator of blood glucose control, was at 52. That meant her condition was under control – but only just. It was enough to motivate Sheinaz to begin making some big lifestyle changes, and when her GP offered to refer onto the Changing Health programme to help her do so, she accepted – albeit with some reservations about whether it would be of much use.

Changing Health Programme

The programme comprises a course of digital education on diabetes to improve participants’ understanding of how diet impacts on their condition, combined with one-to-one lifestyle change coaching from an expert in health psychology and behavioural science.

“I was devastated to hear the diagnosis, absolutely devastated” she says. “I just thought, ‘I have a healthy diet, I do all the things I could possibly do, what more can I do?’ Going to a group session wasn’t really sustainable for me, and the other option was having a health app.

“When you’re being monitored by your GP practice you’re only seen once a quarter, so I thought having the app available will help me to maintain that consciousness of the long term condition I have, and it’s an alternative that actually works better than seeing your GP”

As Sheinaz worked her way through the programme, her preconceptions of digital health apps changed entirely. She was moving more. She had more energy. With a few pointers from her lifestyle coach on the best changes to fit her own circumstances, soon she was cooking tasty, healthy meals every day, building positive habits into her daily routine rather than treating weight loss as a chore. “I increased my physical activity on a daily basis using the app, and having my own personal health coach really helped too.”

It was a complete change of mindset for Sheinaz – and it paid off. In just ten weeks she had lost 18lb, or a little over 8kg. Then came more good news.

It Really Happened: Type 2 Diabetes Reversal

“I spoke to my GP on the phone. He said ‘you don’t have diabetes’ – I said ‘yes I do, I was diagnosed ten weeks ago!’ – and he said ‘well your blood sugars are normal; you’ve reversed your diabetes.’”

Sheinaz was ecstactic. And six months on from the original diagnosis, she’s living a whole new life. “In myself I feel better, my memory’s much better… I’m sleeping really really well, bouncing with energy, and bouncing with confidence. I love the diet and I’ve got so much energy as a result, and I’m still losing up to half a pound per week but I never feel like I’m on a diet.

The Changing Health programme was designed to empower users not only to adopt healthier habits, but crucially, to keep them up – for good. That looks promising for Sheinaz. As of mid-July, she’s now lost a total of 24lb and dropped two dress sizes.

“I can still use the app and the coaching sessions for another six months, but I don’t really need them; it’s become a habit now. I’m being creative about cooking, and I’m eating less carbs, but you know what? I don’t miss them at all.”