Reality show strives to help at-risk patients avoid diabetes

They will watch a video-on-demand series about people like them who are working to change their unhealthy lifestyles.

By — Posted March 7, 2012

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An experiment sponsored by Comcast and UnitedHealth Group will examine whether watching an on-demand reality show about people enrolled in a diabetes prevention program can help viewers make lifestyle changes.

As part of the program, 320 Comcast subscribers in Philadelphia and Knoxville, Tenn., will watch the program and receive assignments to help them complete a diabetes prevention program like the one they watch on TV over the course of a year.

The "Not Me" diabetes prevention program is modeled after one developed by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The education curriculum has been used successfully in other settings, including the YMCA, where participants helped one another succeed, said Mark Coblitz, senior vice president of strategic planning for Comcast.

He said bonding and understanding of another person's challenges is important, but that Comcast brings scale to the project. In other words, TV is an excellent way to reach many people quickly and diabetes demands a large-scale response.

"The problem is tens of millions of people and growing," Coblitz said. "The answer is scale."

The CDC estimates that nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes -- a figure that includes undiagnosed cases -- and that 79 million others are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Coblitz said the answer also lies in entertainment. He cited the popularity of the long-running show "The Biggest Loser," which is aired on Comcast-owned NBC.

"This is not a game, but it is like a reality show in that sense that you can identify with somebody else like you," he said.

The "Not Me" reality show's six stars will use the same curriculum as the study enrollee viewers. All the people in the show will trying to change their diet and exercise regimens to lose 5% to 7% of their starting body weight -- an amount shown to cut the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study participants will watch the stars complete the prevention program for 16 episodes.

Coblitz said other Comcast customers in those markets will be able to watch the show but won't receive any coaching or participate in the study.

If the program works, United and Comcast said they will "evaluate making the diabetes prevention program available on the Xfinity On Demand platform in communities across the country." Xfinity is the brand name of Comcast's cable systems.

George Grunberger, MD, an endocrinologist and chair of the Grunberger Diabetes Institute in Bloomfield, Mich., sees patients with type 2 diabetes. He is skeptical that a TV program could give at-risk patients the push they need to make major lifestyle changes.

"Most people I see are reasonably smart, yet all I see are overweight, obese people," said Dr. Grunberger, a member of the board of directors of the American Assn. of Clinical Endocrinologists. "They listen to the same message for decades. I just don't see people around me who are taking this seriously."

On the other hand, he said, any prevention effort is worth trying. "This would encourage them to watch TV, but, at the same time, if it's linked to someone actively tracking the change in their lifestyle, that's cool," he said. "Clearly, something needs to be done. I have mixed feelings, but I applaud the idea."

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