Contributor: Kathy Warwick, RD, LD, CDE
Early in my career as a diabetes educator, we were told that our diabetes education would have to be conducted in a group class format in order to get reimbursed by insurance. At first, I thought this was a terrible idea and let everyone know that I believed the best method for education was an individual visit. Over the next few years, I learned so much from working with a group of people who were all struggling and learning to live with a daunting diagnosis of diabetes. As I matured into a better educator, I began to appreciate the group dynamic and the sense of community that would evolve over the course of a few hours together. When I stood by as a facilitator of discussion instead of teaching from my well-planned topic outline, there was a meaningful exchange of ideas and some great peer support that would happen. I became a believer in the power of learning in a group.
I remember one of my first clients who came for education starting our session with the question- "Do YOU have diabetes?" Followed by this statement- "Because I am awfully tired of medical folks telling me how to eat and what to do every day when they don't have any idea how hard this is." She was right. I did not really understand. There is something very comforting about sharing and listening to others who are dealing with some of the same challenges and feelings as you are. When you are in the midst of a crisis, it can feel like you are all alone and there's no one who understands or "gets it." This is a potential slippery slope that can lead to depression, diabetes-related distress, and the loss of motivation to stick with the daily care tasks essential to staying healthy with diabetes. Diabetes is a very labor-intensive, time-consuming, and often frustrating health condition. The time spent with your healthcare provider or diabetes care team is often too short and infrequent to qualify as "ongoing support." In addition, healthcare providers often have to focus on the medical management and usually neglect the psychosocial care that is so important for holistic health maintenance.
Numerous research studies have been conducted in order to answer the question: "Does peer support really work?" The answer is a resounding yes - if the peer support is positive and truly respectful of the individuals in the group. Positive peer support can improve quality of life and reduce diabetes-related distress and depression. Studies that looked at healthcare costs show that peer support can help save money for the individual living with diabetes and the healthcare system as a whole. In one study, those with peer support had 70% fewer hospitalizations and 50% fewer clinic visits. And yes, peer support even leads to better glucose control. A review of 65 different studies published in 2017 showed an average decrease in A1c levels of .76%, which is better than a lot of diabetes medications on the market today.
There has been a virtual explosion of new peer support groups for those living with diabetes in the past few years. There is a group for everyone - those with type 1, type 2, those caring for children with diabetes, college students, those with eating disorders, as well as multicultural groups. These groups interact in-person or through online diabetes communities. DiabetesSisters is a great example of quality positive peer support with in-person PODS Meetups and online resources available 24-7. Ongoing support is crucial for anyone dealing with a chronic condition. Dealing with the hundreds of daily decisions and inevitable bumps in the road can take a toll and lead to burnout without someone to share the burden. Peer support is now seen as an important adjunct to medical care and diabetes education that fills the gaps and provides the motivation and tools to get you through those rough patches. Chances are, you will likely also inspire someone else by sharing your real-life experience and insight.
Kathy Warwick is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with 36 years of experience in several areas of dietetics practice. She is the owner of Professional Nutrition Consultants, LLC in Madison, Mississippi, providing inpatient and outpatient diabetes education, long term care consultation, hospice consultation, wellness program services, media communications, and medical-legal consultation. Kathy is a medical reviewer for Healthline.com.
Kathy speaks regularly to community and professional groups and has presented multiple national webinars. She serves as the Print Communications Chair for the Diabetes Care and Education Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is a Past-President of the Mississippi Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her spare time, Kathy enjoys her grandbabies, gardening, caring for her chickens, yoga, and a weekly art class.