Why Primary Care Physicians Are Essential For Diabetes Treatment

Written by 
Caroline Bodian
Reviewed by 
Katy Brodski-Quigley
Article at a glance
  • Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how your system turns food into energy.

  • There’s no cure for diabetes, though certain lifestyle changes, such as diet can help.

  • A primary care doctor will provide routine medical care: lab tests, physical exams and prescriptions.

  • There are several diagnostic tests that detect type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.

  • If you have diabetes or prediabetes, schedule regular appointments with your primary care physician.

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In the United States, more than 34 million people have diabetes, and more than 88 million, or one third of adults have prediabetes. The medical costs of those diagnosed with diabetes is sky high, and oftentimes avoiding healthcare will add up to more costs and health issues in the long run. While lifestyle changes, such as exercise and a healthy diet, help reduce the risk of developing severe diabetes, it often requires a team of medical professionals to manage and monitor the condition. Your primary care doctor is an essential part of that team, helping you learn the basics of diabetes care, performing lab tests and physical exams and prescribing medication. Your primary care doctor may also refer you to specialists, such as endocrinologists or ophthalmologists. Learn more about diabetes, and why your primary care physician is a key part of the diabetes care team.

Diabetes overview

Before learning about your primary care physician’s role in treating diabetes, it’s important to know what diabetes is and how it can be prevented. Diabetes is a long term health condition that affects how your system transforms food into energy. Food is broken down into sugar (glucose) and released into the bloodstream. A heightened sugar level signals your pancreas to release insulin, and insulin helps allow blood sugar into your cells for energy.

Someone with diabetes doesn’t make insulin or has trouble properly using the insulin the pancreas makes. This causes too much sugar in the bloodstream, which can lead to health issues such as vision loss, kidney disease and heart disease.

There are three primary types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is autoimmune-related and keeps your body from creating insulin. Type 1 symptoms usually develop quickly and those who have it need to take insulin on a daily basis. Five to 10 percent of the people with diabetes have type 1, and it’s usually diagnosed early on in children, teens and young adults. Preventative measures for type 1 diabetes are unknown.

Type 2 diabetes is when your body can’t keep blood sugar at normal levels. Unlike type 1 diabetes, it can be prevented with healthy lifestyle changes. It can develop over several years and may not show symptoms right away, so it’s helpful to visit your doctor regularly. It’s also relatively common, showing up in 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes.

Gestational diabetes occurs in pregnant women. It goes away after the baby is born, but generally increases your risk of type 2 diabetes.

While there isn’t a cure for diabetes, certain lifestyle changes such as exercise, eating a healthy diet, and losing weight can help. In some cases, it may also help to take diabetes medication prescribed by your doctor. Make sure you’re scheduling regular appointments with your primary care physician and specialists to ease the negative impact of diabetes.

Your diabetes care team

The first and foremost member of your diabetes care team is you. Every day you’re making lifestyle choices that could affect your health. You’ll also be the first one to notice if you’re experiencing any symptoms. Moreover, it’s up to you to schedule regular appointments with your primary care doctor, especially if you have a family history of diabetes.

Key to your diabetes care team will be your primary care doctor, who will provide routine medical care including lab tests, physical exams and prescriptions. Specialists on your care team might include: an endocrinologist, ophthalmologist or optometrist, podiatrist, pharmacist, dentist, registered nurse, registered dietician nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist, mental health professional and fitness professional.

Managing diabetes with your primary care physician

Your primary care physician is often the first doctor you’ll see for your diabetes. If you’re experiencing diabetes symptoms or have a family history and want to get tested, your primary care doctor is a good place to start.

A primary care physician will often help you learn the basics of diabetes care and offer support as you manage your condition. It’s essential to test your blood sugar levels to find out what type of diabetes you have. A primary care doctor will also let you know if you have prediabetes, which affects more than 1 in 3 adults in the United States. Prediabetes increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

How does your primary care physician test for diabetes?

Diabetes tests to confirm the diagnosis of type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes include:

  • The A1C test, which measures average blood sugar levels over 2 to 3 months. An A1C above 6.5 percent indicates you have diabetes.

  • A fasting blood sugar test measures your blood sugar after you’ve fasted overnight. A blood sugar level over 126 mg/​dL indicates diabetes.

  • The glucose tolerance test measures your blood sugar before and after you drink a liquid with glucose. A blood sugar level over 200 mg/​dL indicates diabetes.

  • The random blood sugar test measures your blood sugar when you’re tested and can be taken at any time — with no fasting needed. A level over 200 mg/​dL is a sign of diabetes.

If your tests indicate that you have prediabetes, you should ask your primary care physician about lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce the impact of diabetes on your life. Changes might include a healthy diet, exercise and weight loss. Ask your doctor about programs that can help you manage your prediabetes and stay on track.

If you have diabetes, you’ll want to avoid serious health complications. One way to do this is to regularly schedule appointments with your primary care doctor. It’s best to schedule at least four diabetes checkups per year in addition to exams and your annual physical.

In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes in the U.S. has more than doubled. With the American population aging and with more people classified as having obesity or being overweight, diabetes has become more pervasive, and healthcare professionals who diagnose and manage the disease are more needed than ever. Fundamental to the healthcare team are the primary care physicians, who perform testing, prescribe medication, and provide patients with information about the condition.

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