As chief medical officer at YourCare Health Plan, Joe Stankaitis has a wealth of insight when it comes to all matters of internal medicine. But his passion for diabetes stands out, and his work in that area is being honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Rochester chapter of the American Diabetes Association.
Known colloquially as Dr. Joe, Stankaitis is approaching his 21st year at YourCare, a health plan provider under Monroe Plan which specializes in free or low-cost health care packages in the Greater Rochester area via Medicaid and Medicare. In that time, Stankaitis has served on the board of both the Buffalo and Rochester ADAs, and has worked to help facilitate better means of addressing the menace of diabetes. He waxes near poetically on the health indicators, risk factors and possible solutions to the growing number of diabetes diagnoses nationwide.
“It’s a disease that’s really reeking havoc on our society, to say the least,” Stankaitis said. “It’s interesting to see how it’s grown in terms of the number of people with it, it’s the number one cause of blindness in the United States, the number one cause of kidney failure in the United States. That’s huge.”
The pervasive reach of diabetes is staggering. According to a July 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30.3 million Americans are currently living with diabetes, with an estimated 7.2 million undiagnosed. Even more alarming, the incidence of those in prediabetes encompasses 33 percent of all Americans. Prediabetes is defined as a condition of heightened blood glucose level which leaves a person at higher risk of Type 2 diabetes development.
Race plays an integral role here. According to the report, 12.7 percent of African-Americans and 12.1 percent of Hispanics were diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 7.4 percent of whites. In fact, when comparing a map of the most diabetes-prone regions of the country and a map of racial concentration, the images are remarkably similar. According to Stankaitis, that is due to a mixture of accessibility to healthy food, cultural influences and lack of education.
Native Americans have the highest rate, at 15.1 percent, while Chinese-Americans have the lowest, at 4.3 percent.
“The populations that we serve under YourCare Health Plan unfortunately have the highest prevalence rates of this disease in the United States,” Stankaitis said. “If you’re African-American, if you’re Hispanic, if you’re Native American, your rates can be in the teens, throughout the population at any given time. Unfortunately, a lot of these folks have financial challenges, a lot of them do not have the ability to be able to easily have the right diet, to be able to exercise, to be able to do the things they need to do to prevent it easily.”
Stankaitis says serving that demographic and breaking that barrier motivates his work with diabetes. But it’s a significant challenge, and it’s exacerbated by the presence of food deserts, or areas where access to quality to high-quality, affordable food is low. According to the USDA’s Food Research Atlas, Rochester is home to a number of neighborhoods where grocery stores are more than a half-mile away, a good segment of population is low-income, and a large segment does not own a car. The majority of these neighborhoods are on the western bank of the Genesee River, as well as in College Town, Eastman Kodak Business Park, the Mt. Hope area and Upper Monroe. The main areas in Monroe County as a whole surround RIT and the Xerox Webster campus.
Combine the prevalence of food deserts, a low median income and low access to preventative care, and you have a cocktail for a health crisis. According to the City of Rochester’s 2017 health equity report, the rate of hospitalizations for diabetes-related complications in Monroe County was eight per 10,000, compared to 6.3 across the state, including New York City. The rate in Rochester was 17.3 per 10,000.
“The reason a lot of the people who are economically challenged are impacted like this is because a lot of the food they have access to are the foods they should be avoiding,” Stankaitis said. “You take a look at some of the food stuffs available here, we have a lot of food deserts here. It’s very difficult to access fresh fruit and vegetables, comparable to all of the snacks you can buy at the corner store. It’s a cultural thing, it’s a socio-economic issue and, really, it’s having people understand what they can do about it and facilitate doing the right thing.”
Facilitation has been a key focus of Stankaitis’ work at YourCare. Diabetes is not the only disease provoked or antagonized by poverty. High blood pressure, stress disorders, obesity and numerous others all show direct, positive correlations with the victim being at an economic disadvantage. But for diabetes, Stankaitis said, something can be done.
“We have to have a lot more venues available for people that are safe for them to exercise, and feel safe in doing so,” Stankaitis said. “One of the way to prevent diabetes is to have a moderate level of exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week. You do that, and it decreases your risk for diabetes. It’s things like this are a challenge to some of this population, and if we as a community realize that this is something we can prevent then, gee, we can make an impact on a lot of folks.”
That’s the work Stankaitis has spilled much of his life into: educating and helping to better understand the prevention of diabetes. This newest recognition, he said, is a humbling acknowledgment of that.
“It means a lot to me, because it recognizes something I’ve done for a passion that I have, and it’s incredible,” Stankaitis said. “Now, I didn’t get an Oscar statue, but that’s a whole other deal.”
Yet, despite his gratitude, Stankaitis calls the lifetime achievement award a misnomer. That being because his life’s work is far from done. In the near future, he hopes to focus on bring more telemedicine into the diabetes diagnosis and treatment mix and pushing for better education and understanding of one America’s most common, and most preventable, diseases.
“There’s no one magical bullet for all of this, but if we all do something, it all starts to add up, and it makes a difference,” Stankaitis said. “For the kids and everybody else.”
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