Here’s Why You Should Be Working With a Formal Diabetes Education Program

Knowledge is your best defense

Patient checking blood sugar level with fruits and veggies in the background

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30.3 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. Another 84.1 million have pre-diabetes, a condition that can lead to type 2 diabetes within five years, if it’s not treated.

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Diabetes is a major risk factor for early death from heart attack, stroke and many cancers. It also increases the risk of kidney disease, blindness and amputation. But these outcomes are not inevitable, if you learn about the disease and your role in managing it.

“We show patients every day what they can do to minimize their risks,” says diabetes educator Shannon Knapp, BSN, RN, CDE.

More than medications

The impact of diabetes differs widely among individuals. Many patients assume they will end up on dialysis, become blind or lose a leg, if that is what happened to someone they know. “I tell them that if their blood sugars are always high, they are at very high risk of such complications, but if they can keep their blood sugar within a target range, their risk is far lower,” says Knapp.

Blood sugar control involves much more than simply taking a medication.That’s why Knapp recommends patients attend a diabetes self-management education (DSME) program when they are first diagnosed.

These programs cover many topics, giving us the opportunity to dispel myths and give patients the information they need to understand and manage their disease.

This includes teaching the impact of diabetes on various organs and the value of making and keeping routine appointments with appropriate specialists.

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Patients also learn the importance of measuring blood sugar levels regularly. “We teach them to watch for variations in their normal pattern, consider possible causes and identify what they might do in the future to avoid highs and lows,” says Knapp.

Dispelling myths

What patients learn in DSME often differs from widely held beliefs about diabetes and its treatments.

For example, many people are misinformed about the best way to treat low blood sugar levels.

“They often think they should eat a candy bar or crackers with cheese or peanut butter, but these are poor choices,” says Knapp. “These foods contain a lot of fat, which delays the absorption of carbs. You need carbs that will convert quickly to glucose, like juice, which should not be consumed with a fatty food.”

Another is that insulin is only for people with type 1 diabetes. But when a patient with type 2 diabetes is unable to achieve an A1c level below 7% with oral medications or non-insulin injections, it’s time to start insulin.

Insulin doesn’t need constant refrigeration, either. “Once a vial or pen has been opened, it can be stored at room temperature for about a month,” she says.

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Finding the right program

DSME programs are offered at hospitals and medical centers nationwide. While the curriculum is standardized, program presentations may vary from individual sessions to multi-session group classes. Knapp suggests calling around to learn how programs in your area are structured.

Most insurance plans cover the cost of diabetes education, but you’ll need to check with your own insurance provider to verify coverage. Medicare covers up to 10 hours of DSME in the first year and up to two hours a year afterwards for follow-up education. All you need is a referral from your doctor.

Knapp says the information is valuable, no matter how long you have had the disease.

“The most surprised patients are those who were diagnosed years ago, but never had the opportunity to attend a DSME program. After one hour, they say, ‘Why didn’t I get diabetes education earlier?’”

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.

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