December 15, 2021

Danish primary care doctor visits Family Medicine as part of international diabetes research exchange program

Dr. Morten Haaning Charles returns home with new perspectives, approaches on diabetes prevention and treatment, while building bridges between Michigan Medicine researchers and family medicine doctors in Denmark.

Although Denmark’s population enjoys a relatively low rate of diabetes as compared to the United States, more and more people are impacted by the disease, according to Danish family medicine doctor and visiting Michigan Medicine Scholar Morten Haaning Charles, M.D., Ph.D., G.P.

Morten Haaning Charles, M.D., Ph.D., G.P.

“Diabetes is a growing problem,” he said in a recent interview.

 Compared to the United States, where 34.2 million Americans, or 10.5% of the population, had diabetes as of 2018, according to the American Diabetes Association, only about 230,000 people, or 4% of Denmark’s population of around 5.7 million, have diabetes. Around 85-90% of people with diabetes are treated in the primary care setting in Denmark, according to Dr. Charles.

During his time in the U.S., Dr. Charles has perceived various barriers to healthy behaviors, like exercise and selecting healthy foods, which can dramatically reduce risk of diabetes. While here, he and his family purchased bicycles -- a major mode of transportation for the Danish population— but they quickly found that many locations were inaccessible via bicycle, often due to local road construction.

“You have to drive to do anything,” he said.

He also noticed big differences in U.S. grocery stores: “There’s a large variety of easily available, unhealthy foods. You can’t get out of the supermarket without buying something full of sugar,” he remarked.

As the first participant of a fellowship program between the University of Michigan and Steno Diabetes Centres in Denmark, Dr. Charles has spent approximately five months at Michigan Medicine working with diabetes research experts, including several members of the Department of Family Medicine.

“Diabetes research at U-M is big,” he observed. “It’s definitely on the top of the international map of diabetes research.”

The Department of Family Medicine has several ongoing research initiatives, studying ways to better prevent and treat diabetes in the primary care setting with projects including the role of physician implicit bias and communication behaviors in dissatisfaction, mistrust, and nonadherence in Black patients with Type 2 diabetes; improving diabetes monitoring technology for people with spinal cord injuries; investigating the benefits of a low-carb diet coupled with continuous glucose devices; and the Michigan Collaborative for Type 2 Diabetes, which empowers clinicians with the latest evidence-based strategies to prevent and slow disease progression.

Through his time spent learning about U-M’s diabetes research and studying primary care clinical practices here in the United States, Dr. Charles hopes to return to his homeland with new perspectives and approaches on diabetes prevention and treatment, while building bridges between researchers at Michigan Medicine and family medicine practitioners in Denmark.

“I’m also hoping to encourage other researchers to do research with us. There are a lot of opportunities to do high level research in the field of diabetes in Denmark,” he said.

Dr. Charles practices family medicine in Aarhus, located in the central region of Denmark, and is an associate professor in the Department of General Medicine at Aarhus University. He and fellow researchers recently conducted a study that showed that using an electronic disease management program with alerts of clinical performance measures can increase primary care physicians’ prescriptions of guideline-recommended, lipid-lowering drugs.

He also has been involved with the Steno Diabetes Centres since the first of five locations opened in 2017. The treatment centers are funded by Novo Nordisk Foundation.

“If you have an interest in health care promotion and preventing and treating diabetes, the Steno centers are the place to go,” he said.

For more information about the Steno North American Fellowship, contact Dr. Morten Haaning Charles at [email protected].