Online tool could help predict risk of type 2 diabetes, study suggests

by Barbara Hewitt on April 6, 2017

Using the internet to find out about a condition is not recommended by health professionals, but when it comes to diabetes and heart disease, a new online metabolic calculator has been developed by a doctor.

A new study suggests that it can predict the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease more accurately than traditional methods and could be the start of useful online health indicators that are patient specific.

The study has found that the online tool developed by Dr Mark DeBoer of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine and his research partner Matthew Gurka at the University of Florida predicts people’s risk of developing heart disease and diabetes better than other methods.

DeBoer hopes it will prompt patients to make lifestyle changes that would spare them the suffering and expense of avoidable illnesses. He said that it gives out the message to people that they are on the risk spectrum and prompts them to do something about it.

‘My hypothesis is that the more specific information you can give to individuals at risk, the more they will understand it and be motivated to make some changes,’ he added.

Doctors traditionally have predicted risk type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease by looking for five key factors: obesity, high blood pressure, high fasting triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol and high fasting blood sugar. Patients with abnormalities in at least three of these are diagnosed as having metabolic syndrome and told that they are at elevated risk for future health problems.

The problem with that approach, DeBoer said, is that it is too black and white. ‘As is true in most processes in life, the reality is that this risk exists on a spectrum. Someone who has values in each of these individual risk factors that are just below the cut off still has more risk for future disease than somebody who has very low values,’ he explained.

He also pointed out that the traditional approach also fails to consider variables such as race, ethnicity and gender. For example, African-American men are unlikely to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome but still have a high risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

DeBoer said that the new tool weights the traditional risk factors and also takes into account race, gender and ethnicity to produce an easy to understand metabolic severity score. A small study previously found that the online calculator’s predictions lined up well with actual cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the large new study further bears that out.

The latest study looked, retroactively, at outcomes in more than 13,000 people and found that DeBoer and Gurka’s tool was a better risk predictor than the individual risk factors alone.

‘This would suggest that when somebody has this congregation of metabolic syndrome findings, there probably is some underlying process that is producing those findings, and that those underlying processes are also contributing to future risk,’ DeBoer said.

‘The hope is that a scoring system like this could be incorporated in the electronic medical record to calculate someone’s risk and that information could be provided both to the physician, who then realizes there is an elevated risk, and to the patient, who hopefully can start taking some preventative steps,’ he added.

He pointed out that further research is required to determine exact cut off values of the score that indicate particular jumps in risk. The score is primarily intended for physicians, but can be used by anyone who has the needed health information.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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