Here is a clear example of how the new Diabetes Treatment Guidelines and big Pharma have failed to protect the needs of diabetics who are disadvantaged by economic circumstances and disease. This is the story of one of my patients, an elderly, blind and impoverished woman with blindness due to diabetes. She managed to maintain some degree of independence and did not complain about what a lousy hand life had dealt her. One of the ways she remained independent was by using a device known as an insulin pen. The pen is an all-in-one device equipped with a needle , contains an insulin reservoir and is adjusted to a specific insulin dose by a twist of its dial. With this device she was able to inject her insulin dose daily by herself with sufficient accuracy to control her diabetes. The older method of using a separate syringe and insulin vial required too much dexterity and vision for her to use safely and would have require someone to help her on a regular basis. The type of insulin she uses, NPH, dissolves slowly so her risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) was less than if she used the newer insulins which contain rapid acting insulin. What’s more, NPH insulin is still relatively inexpensive, costing about one half the price of the newer insulins.
I became aware of her problem at her visit with me last week. I learned the NPH insulin pen was being discontinued and there is nothing on the market to replace it. The only insulin pens now available contain insulin with rapid action or are at least twice as expensive as her present pen. What could have caused this sudden shift in the medical supply chain? I recently reviewed the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) new Diabetic Treatment Guidelines (see http://www.metabolism.com/2010/01/18/diabetes-treatment-guidelines-flawed/ ) which dismisses NPH insulin as out moded and recommends the newer (more expensive) insulins be used in its place. The company’s decision to stop making NPH insulin pens coincides almost simultaneously with this new AACE policy statement. In my mind the close timing of the corporate and the professional actions implies cross communications between them. Could the AACE decision to downgrade the use of NPH in some way support corporate economics? I wouldn’t be suprised at all.
Diabetes is the most common cause of blindness in the U.S. . My guess is that there are more blind, and poor diabetics who could make good use of the inexpensive NPH insulin pen. In the case of my patient, we are scrambling to put together a support plan for her so she can maintain her independence, her pocket book and still control her diabetes to a reasonable degree. I hope others in her position can find a similar support network.
Gary Pepper, M.D. Editor-in-Chief, Metabolism.com