By Carol Jameson, CEO, HealthWorks for Northern Virginia
Finding out you have diabetes can be scary.
All of a sudden, you must manage a serious, chronic disease that will require you to make major changes: from what you eat to when you eat to getting more exercise. You will need to read food labels and count carbs. You may be required to test your blood-sugar levels at home. And you’ll need to see a medical provider regularly who will assess your progress—and tell you how you’re managing.
It’s stressful. In fact, there is a strong link between diabetes and anxiety, and some studies show that having diabetes doubles your risk for depression.
In addition, having diabetes can carry a stigma. People with diabetes may be viewed as not eating properly, not watching their weight, and generally not taking care of themselves.
And on top of everything else, sometimes there’s guilt as well.
While diabetes is a major health problem nationally, low-income populations are particularly vulnerable. Fresh healthy food is often more expensive and sometimes difficult to access. In addition, people with low incomes often face challenges, such as having to work more than one job, relying on public transportation, and finding dependable child care.
At HealthWorks for Northern Virginia, we wanted to support patients newly diagnosed with diabetes to manage their condition successfully. HealthWorks is a nonprofit community health center, supported in part by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, that primarily serves people who have low incomes and limited or no health insurance.
In collaboration with George Mason University, we came up with the idea of running a weekly group visit program for people newly diagnosed with diabetes. It runs a bit like a Weight Watchers meeting. A nurse practitioner and a registered dietician moderate the group, usually 10 to 12 people. We provide patients with practical information about topics like nutrition and diet and answer their questions.
Then we open the meeting up to a facilitated discussion.
Patients ask each other questions. How do you find time to exercise? How did you get your husband to change his diet? They exchange tips and lessons learned. Sometimes they even wind up taking walks together for exercise.
The meeting becomes not only an educational visit, but a true support group, where members provide each other with encouragement and help.
One story I heard from our nurse practitioner involves an older woman who was struggling with having to monitor her blood sugars at home. She lacked confidence using the glucometer, and her anxieties were leading to tension with her family members.
At the diabetes group visits, she heard from other patients about their experiences learning to use the glucometer and how they gained confidence through practice. The woman’s daughter came to one of the group visits with her mother, so that they were able to discuss how to do home testing, and the daughter was able to reassure her mother of her support. Now the woman is on track, confident in her ability to monitor her blood sugars, and confident in her family’s support.
In another story, a female patient had a difficult time adjusting her diet. She felt despondent, saying she lacked the will power to forego the unhealthy foods she loved so much. But through the group visit program, she found support and encouragement. She learned from her fellow group members how to change the way she thinks about food and how to change her eating habits.
People with diabetes need to know that they are not in this alone—that there are many others who share their challenges, and that help and support are available to them. They also need to know that they can manage their diabetes, and that even when they experience setbacks, they will be OK.
That’s why our diabetes group visits are so valuable. They create a place where patients can talk not only about their disease, but about their lives.
Yes, diabetes is scary. But, as we’ve seen through our group visits, with proper support and encouragement, people with diabetes can learn how to live healthy and even happy lives.
HealthWorks for Northern Virginia provides health care in to patients who have limited or no health insurance. HealthWorks is a grantee of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation.