FARMINGTON, N.M. — The hospital recently hired a doctor with six years of experience treating American Indian patients to assist physicians who treat the most complex diabetic patients in the county.

Dr. George Ang, born in the Philippines, started work in Farmington in December as a physician at San Juan Health Partners. He's the first endocrinologist at the health partnership or San Juan Regional Medical Center, hospital officials said.

Ang previously worked six years in Gallup at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital and moved to Farmington in search of more patients. He expects to stay busy because of this area's high rates of diabetes, especially among American Indians.

Endocrinologists are internal medicine physicians with additional training with the body's glands that produce hormones.

While some endocrinologists specialize in treating health issues such as infertility or excessive or limited growth, Ang is content to work primarily with diabetic patients.

"I just happened to really love diabetes," he said. "So this was a good fit for me because there is a huge need (for an endocrinologist) among the Native Americans."

Local diabetes rates have long concerned health officials. Statewide, New Mexico has a diabetes rate of 10 percent. Among American Indians, more than 16 percent of the population has diabetes, said Sandra Grunwaldt, the diabetic education coordinator at the hospital.

Ang said an unhealthy lifestyle coupled with a wariness to medication contribute to the discrepancy in diabetes rates among ethnicities.

Ang said personable care can improve the chance of success when treating a patient for diabetes. Especially when treating American Indian patients, he said.

"They don't like another specialist telling them they have to do this and this. That doesn't really work, scaring them into shaping up," Ang said. "What I've found is key to being successful is building trust, especially among the Native Americans."

Building trust comes from congratulating patients for shedding a few pounds. Or by memorizing the generic equivalents to big-name medications that are available at Walmart at a lower cost, he said.

Accepting bad health problems as a way of life is also a problem when it comes to treating Navajo diabetes patients, Ang said.

"Some think (kidney disease) is a part of diabetes. Grandma and great grandma were on dialysis, mom is on dialysis and I'll get kidney disease. That's a big misconception," Ang said. "We know we can prevent that but it's difficult. ... It's a daily battle."

The hospital is trying to improve treatment for all diabetic patients, Grunwaldt said. Ang's hire is at one end of the spectrum, as he will treat the most complex and difficult cases.

Because of Ang "we can see people affected by the more severe, long-term effects of diabetes and reduce their risk of getting to the point," Grunwaldt said.

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The hospital is also trying to improve treatment and awareness for people who do not yet have the disease.

In addition to offering free six-week-long diabetes education courses to diabetic patients, the hospital will start at the end of January offering a Lifestyle Balance Program. It's a similar education program for people who are at risk of getting diabetes, Grunwaldt said.

For treating diabetes, "lifestyle is key," Ang said. "It's more effective than any drug."

Information from: The Daily Times,