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FirstHealth Program Helps Richmond Residents with Pre-Diabetes

| Date Posted: 4/26/2016

 Michelle Cole, R.D., LDN, CDE

ROCKINGHAM – Despite a family history of diabetes, Anthony Townsend was surprised to learn that he was on the verge of developing the disease himself.


“I was shocked that I was borderline,” he says.


Fortunately, Townsend’s doctor knew about a free diabetes prevention program being piloted in Richmond County by FirstHealth’s Diabetes & Nutrition Education program and helped him enroll in classes that let him get a handle on his sugar, his weight and his lifestyle. He has lost 27 pounds and four pants’ sizes, and his once-threatening blood sugar levels have returned to the normal range.


“I feel much better,” says Townsend, a 51-year-old employee of Perdue Farms. “I feel like a teenager again.”


Michelle Cole, R.D., LDN, CDE, the certified diabetes educator who has coached Townsend through the pre-diabetes program, describes him as a “star patient” because of his commitment to his goal.


“He’s been very diligent,” Cole says. “He’s lost a lot of weight, has been going to the gym, eating healthy foods, exercising every day and has attended every class. I wish everybody was half as diligent as Anthony has been.”


Commitment can be difficult, Cole admits, since the program, which uses a curriculum approved by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lasts a full year. Townsend’s session started in May 2015 and began with 16 one-hour weekly classes accompanied by 150 minutes of physical activity each week. He met the exercise component with a five-day-a-week workout routine.


To meet a CDC-set goal, the entire class had to achieve an average weight loss of 5 percent by the end of six months.


“Our class lost an average of 5.8 percent, which is excellent,” Cole says. “Research suggests that is enough to prevent Type 2 diabetes.”


The CDC program includes lessons, handouts and other resources geared toward helping participants make healthy lifestyle changes. A specially trained lifestyle coach leads the classes, helping participants learn new skills, encouraging them to set and meet goals, and keeping them motivated.


The support of people with similar goals and challenges who share ideas, celebrate successes and work to overcome obstacles helps keep the program interesting.


According to Cole, the CDC launched the program in an attempt to prove that preventive measures, which are not currently covered by insurance, can actually keep at-risk patients from developing diabetes.


“Insurance only pays for patients to be seen once they’ve developed the disease,” she says. “By then, the medical costs are considerable.”


Richmond County health care providers have been extremely supportive of the program in a community where 6.8 percent of the population was diagnosed as borderline or pre-diabetic in 2015 – up from 5.4 percent in 2011. The diabetes prevalence rate also increased during that time – from 17.2 percent in 2011 to 22.9 percent in 2015. So did the diabetes mortality rate – from 50.5 percent in 2011 to 54.8 percent in 2015.


The state’s mortality average is 22.2 percent.


“The providers jumped on this program,” Cole says. “If patients are diagnosed as pre-diabetic and they can change their lifestyle habits within an 18- to 24-month window, it is possible to delay and even prevent the onset of diabetes, which would have a positive effect on our population health numbers.”


A new yearlong class – led by diabetes educator and registered dietitian Kelly Godwin, R.D., and health coach Kristen Cook, CHES, ACE-certified personal trainer– started in March, and Cole will submit more information from the first class to the CDC in May. Despite the obvious success of people like Townsend, keeping patients engaged for an entire year has been difficult.  Finding a meeting time that worked for everyone was “tough,” Cole acknowledges, given differing work schedules and family responsibilities.


The first class started out with 11 participants, but has dropped to an average of three or four over these past six months. To prove its diabetes prevention theory, the CDC needs accurate information and the commitment of people like Townsend.


“He totally bought into it,” Cole says. “He also liked the way he felt.”


Townsend, who says he was “eating everything under the sun” and getting no exercise before starting the program, now understands the importance of incorporating exercise into a lifestyle centered on a healthy diet.


That has been hard, but not impossible, he points out, and returning to his old way of life is not an option.


“I had to get a whole new wardrobe,” he says. “I really can’t afford to go back.”


There is no charge to participate in the CDC Pre-Diabetes Program being offered in Richmond County by FirstHealth Diabetes & Nutrition Education. For more information, contact Michelle Cole, R.D., LDN, CDE, at

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