Who will treat you

To manage diabetes adequately, continuous support from a multi-disciplinary team of healthcare providers (HPs) will help you in your choices around medication, food, and exercise. There are national treatment guidelines for diabetes which HPs use to determine this best treatment plan.

The doctor

The doctor who treats you can either be a general practitioner (GP), specialist physician, or an endocrinologist (specialist physician with sub-speciality training in the field of endocrinology). Some GPs and specialist physicians have extra training and qualifications in the field of diabetes and can offer more expertise and experience. 

The doctor will assess you by asking various questions about the symptoms you’re experiencing, your lifestyle and if you have a family history of diabetes or other chronic conditions. Your height, weight, blood pressure, and waist circumference will be measured, and a full examination will be done, including your feet and eyes (although this latter check-up can be done by your optometrist).

Basic bloods tests will always be done: HbA1c to assess diabetes control, a fasting lipogram (full cholesterol test), kidney and liver function, a full blood count and a urine analysis to test for microscopic protein (this gives an early indication of the risk of kidney disease). 

A follow-up consultation will be scheduled. This should be a minimum of every six months. A follow-up every three months is ideal and some medical aids’ diabetes managed care programmes do cover this. Usually, these visits alternate between the doctor and diabetes educator.

The diabetes educator (DE)

This is a healthcare worker that has completed with competence a SEMSDA-approved diabetes educators’ course. It’s important to see a DE when you’re diagnosed so they can educate you about your condition. This will include self-management, lifestyle adjustment and setting realistic goals to reach optimal health, based on your needs while respecting your values, culture, ethnicity, and socio-economic situation.

This process should be engaging, and you should feel free to share your concerns, so the goals can be truly individualised.

Initially you may need to see a DE regularly as you may need more time to understand how different factors are affecting you. Managed care programmes allow for two visits to the DE annually.

DEs are there to walk the diabetes journey with you, giving both expert advice and empathic support. 

The biokineticist

If you’re not already regularly exercising, a visit to a biokineticist can help with a structured and safe programme. Exercise is key to good diabetes management. 

The dietitian

Medical nutritional therapy is a vital aspect of both diabetes prevention and management. The objectives are to promote the enjoyment of a variety of nutritious foods in appropriate portion sizes, so you can achieve individual glucose, blood pressure and lipid goals. Assistance to help maintain a healthy body weight is also valuable.

Nutrition therapy should be individualised so working with your registered dietitian (preferably with experience in diabetes management) is vital. You should expect to have about three to four sessions lasting from 45-90 minutes. This should start at diagnosis and should be completed within three to six months. Once this foundation is laid, it’s a good idea to see your dietitian annually for assessment. They can also keep you up-to-date with dietary trends and products that may be useful.

The psychologist

The relationship between diabetes and depression isn’t fully understood but we know that the rigors of managing diabetes can be stressful and lead to depression. Fifty percent of people living with diabetes will experience depression. Your doctor will always acknowledge that it’s essential to treat a mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety, as part of your holistic care. This may require prescription medication, psychotherapy, or both. The psychologist is an integral member of the diabetes team who helps with the burden of chronic disease management.

The podiatrist

In people with diabetes, foot examinations must be an integral component of diabetes management to identify risk for ulceration and lower-extremity amputation. You should have a barefoot examine annually.  

The podiatrist will assess blood flow and nerve function, skin, bones, and joints. They will give advice on footwear and general good footcare. A podiatrist will best educate you on good footcare practices and ulcer prevention. 

Not looking after your feet can be catastrophic so this is one yearly visit that shouldn’t be missed. If you’ve any concerns about your feet always visit your podiatrist first.

The ophthalmologist or optician

Diabetic eye disease is a leading cause of visual impairment due to damage of the small blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye. Cataracts are also a complication of diabetes which are screened for. An eye test should be done every one to two years. This can be done by your local optometrist who will take a retinal photograph and keep it on file. If there is any sign of retinal disease, you’ll be referred immediately to a specialist ophthalmologist. 

Please remember that long-term diabetes retinopathy will only present with visual changes at the point where vision is about to be lost. The early stages of damage to the retina will be completely asymptomatic so unless the eye check-up is being done you’ll not know the risk. A diabetic eye check is offered by most optometry practices for a little as R150. 

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