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Diabetes in Dallas County is a growing problem. What can reverse the trend?

The projected volume of diabetes outpatient services in Dallas County is expected to grow 22% by 2024, and 44% by 2029.
The projected volume of diabetes outpatient services in Dallas County is expected to grow 22% by 2024, and 44% by 2029.

Its latest community health needs assessment says Dallas County's rate of diabetes is above the national average, and will grow worse in coming years. Sam Baker talks with Dr. Uma Gunasekaran, Executive Director of Parkland Health’s Global Diabetes Program.

The rates in Dallas County seem to be highest among African Americans, also people age 65 and older. And a lot of this seems to be centered in the southern sector.

Income levels are lower. Access to quality food, and food in general, is lowered. I'd like to hope that we've made some inroads at Parkland Health to provide more access to health care. But the problem is the cat's already out of the bag once you've developed diabetes. So, we’re really looking to move that needle in the other direction, to look more for prevention before we get to diagnosis.

Are we talking about personal lifestyle choices or societal risk factors?

I think we're talking about all of it. Adults with diabetes were probably not children that were as healthy as they could have been as well, too. So, we really have to rewind that clock back and look back to 50 years ago, 60 years ago.

What was the environment like in southern Dallas? I, unfortunately, like to say that it wasn't a ton better than it is right now. Food access was poor. Social determinants of health are still a huge issue. I think living your daily life is very difficult when you live in that area, mainly because of those issues.

There are a lot of societal factors that haven't changed a lot in the past 50 years, so you shouldn't be surprised that your 65-year-old was a child who had poor access to food and had to eat whatever they could get, whether it was healthy or not. And as they grow older, there wasn't more access to food and there wasn't more income in the household to be able to afford more foods that may be healthier. And then what are you feeding the next generation? The exact same thing. So, we're kind of in this vicious cycle of if we're not trying to improve everything at the same time, it's hard to make headway.

I know there have been efforts for some time to try and bring down the diabetes rates in Dallas County. Give me an idea of what's been done or what is being done now.

Our big push is trying to get education out to the communities for them to understand how does this happen, how do we prevent and if we do have it, how do we treat and get healthier?

And yet the projected volume of outpatient services in this area for diabetes will grow at 44% by 2029.

Which is why we want to move the needle backward. We don't want to wait for people to have diabetes to then provide more diabetes care centers. We want to try to get people off the track of getting diabetes. So, there's a big focus on pre-diabetes as well, too.

But how do you get that information out to people? I mean, it's easier once people walk in the door to try to help them. But what needs to happen before that?

I have a whole educational team that's working with different community partners and organizations to try to push that information out through these community partners in a place where you are already out so that information is more easily accessible to you.

What more help do you need beyond that?

Community building. We want to see that we're providing the health portion of it and that there are community organizations and efforts being made to improve the environment in which people live: jobs, quality of food, access to improving transportation so that they can get to the places that they need to efficiently and safely. All of these have to work in conjunction together to make things better.

So, what should people do to prevent diabetes?

Eat healthier and try to move more. That could be even walking in your neighborhood, even inside your home, or at a store where you feel safe. But movement really does make a difference, even if you're not losing weight.


2022 Dallas County Community Health Needs Assessment

American Diabetes Association

CDC: What is Diabetes?

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.