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Sindhu Rajan, co-founder of Habitnu,

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Dr. Sindhu Rajan: With 90 million at risk, preventing diabetes essential to improving global health

Her digital diabetes program is helping fight the spread of the epidemic, particularly in the Asian-Indian community.

SHARE Dr. Sindhu Rajan: With 90 million at risk, preventing diabetes essential to improving global health
SHARE Dr. Sindhu Rajan: With 90 million at risk, preventing diabetes essential to improving global health
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Dr. Sindhu Rajan takes Type 2 diabetes personally.

An Asian Indian, she’s part of a racial group with the highest prevalence of the disease —according to the Centers for Disease Control — and has seen the effects firsthand. “I know how devastating it can be,” said Rajan. “Nearly everyone over the age of 50 in my family is either prediabetic or has some form of the disease.”

These days almost everyone knows someone who is diabetic or prediabetic. An estimated 30 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes and 90 million more, or one out of every three adults, are at risk of getting it. That’s 90 million people too many, says Rajan. Without intervention, half of these adults may develop diabetes in the next five to seven years.

“The numbers are huge — it’s an epidemic,” said Rajan, 46, of Hyde Park, adding: “But a preventable one.”

It’s a fact she’s devoted her career to solving.

After immigrating to America from India in 2002, Rajan’s first dozen years here were spent researching Type 2 diabetes — first as part of a postdoc program at Yale and then as a faculty member of the University of Chicago. But by the mid 2010s, she grew frustrated that health care systems were so focused on diabetes management and not evidence-based prevention programs, despite a study that showed that those with prediabetes who participate in a structured lifestyle-change program can lower their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.

That the city of Chicago lacked any kind of National Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) was an alarm bell. Maybe it was time to take a more hands-on approach.

“I’d been in academia for a long time and I just thought I needed to do something more directly. We’ve done enough research to know what the problems are — what was needed is to translate it into a public prevention program,” she said. “Somebody had to take that first step.”

Enter HabitNu. In 2015, Rajan and her cofounder Gregg Cooke joined the Chicago healthcare startup incubator MATTER. Over the next 18 months they created a new digital diabetes prevention program that goes beyond the traditional pen-and-paper methods of logging diets and exercise. HabitNu’s mobile app was built to help patients be coached remotely and easily track their weight loss and exercise progress and goals through a 16-week program focused on lifestyle changes.

The program also includes an in-person option delivered through pharmacies, fitness facilities and local community organizations.

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Sindhu Rajan with Vernon Mathias

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“We decided that health care is moving away from hospitals to pharmacies, fitness centers and ‘minute clinics.’ You don’t have to go to the hospital to check your blood sugar or blood pressure or prescribe simple medications,” said Rajan. “We thought it would be a great bargain to deliver prevention programs through these places.”

In 2018, HabitNu became one of only a handful of digital diabetes programs to receive full recognition from the CDC — which meant it qualified for Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act and people with prediabetes can participate in the DPP program for free with no copay.

That means that though HabitNu is currently being used by 6,000 people in 30 locations in Chicago, Rajan expects it to grow exponentially in the next several years. Eventually, she’d love for HabitNu to help millions of people at risk of Type 2 diabetes all over the world.

“Our idea was not to start one program here in Chicago,” said Rajan. “We wanted to do it in a scalable way where it can be done in India or anywhere in the world.”

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