Heritage College program helps those with diabetes help each other

Mar 6, 2017

Kristin Kerwin, R.N., center, and community volunteers with Diabetes Community Partners, staff an information table at the  Diabetes Expo, held Nov. 19, 2016 at the Athens Community Center. Connie Romine of Athens remembers caring for her mother as complications from diabetes destroyed her health and finally took her life. As a result of that painful experience, Romine – who has Type 2 diabetes – is committed to managing her own disease while getting all the help she can from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Diabetes Institute.

“I have had incredible care,” said Romine, who retired in December 2014 as associate director of the Ohio University Alumni Association. “And because of the research (being done at Ohio University), I have elected to take advantage of everything I possibly could get involved with that might be of assistance to me. I wanted to take every avenue available to help me better understand my diabetes and better deal with it.”

Now, as a member of a new community peer support group, Romine looks forward to helping other southeast Ohioans practice diabetes self-management and pointing them to the resources that have proven so useful to her.

Last fall, Romine and four other local people with diabetes finished a course of training to serve as “peer supporters” for fellow diabetes patients in the area. On Feb. 27, organizers of the Diabetes Community Partners project launched the program at an event that matched each trained peer supporter with a community member who has requested the service, and had each pair sign an agreement about the relationship.

Peer supporter Myrdith Sherow of Athens said she believes the group will be enormously beneficial to people with diabetes. “I think we’re going to be very effective mentors, and I’m looking forward to the experience,” she said.

The support group project was among the initiatives funded by a three-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. The Heritage College was awarded the grant in 2015 to develop a collaborative program to improve health outcomes and lower health care costs for Type 2 diabetes patients in southeast Ohio, where rates of diabetes are above the national average.

The first members of Diabetes Community Partners were patients referred by Karen Bailey, M.S., diabetes educator with the Diabetes Institute. They were chosen, according to Kristin Kerwin, R.N., nurse coordinator with the college’s Area Health Education Center/Community Health Programs, partly on the basis of “being confident with their own self-management.”

Kerwin said members of Diabetes Community Partners started out by pinpointing the biggest challenges for people with diabetes in the region and brainstorming ways to address them. “We spent several meetings going over barriers to caring for diabetes, and then we turned to how we could solve those barriers,” she recalled. Those conversations led to the notion of a peer support service, and five original members of the group, including Romine, chose to undergo training.

This training was based on the curriculum of Peers for Progress, a worldwide organization that uses peer support to improve health outcomes, and the Stanford University Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. It stresses that while a peer supporter should not try to take the place of a physician or other health professional, he or she can be very helpful in other ways to a person coping with diabetes.

“As a person with diabetes, there are times when you just don’t understand what’s going on, or you get frustrated,” Romine explained. It’s at those times that having a personal peer supporter, who knows what you’re going through, can help with the struggle.

“We aren’t experts – we are people who have been through the challenges,” Romine said. “I’ve had diabetes for 20, 25 years, and I certainly don’t have all the answers; even now, I sometimes hit a wall, and I have to stop and think about it. And sometimes it just helps to talk to somebody.” She noted that this is especially important for those with a chronic disease like diabetes, which can often lead to depression.

But while a sympathetic ear may sometimes be the best medicine, peer supporters can also provide very practical assistance. They might encourage someone to get more physical activity, for example, by offering to be an exercise buddy.

They will also serve as a conduit to resources for those with diabetes, some of them available free or at reduced cost. This aspect can be crucial, especially in a high-poverty area like southeast Ohio. While peer supporters can’t offer medical, legal or insurance help, they can quickly connect community members with someone who can.

Peer supporters can also push a diabetes patient toward greater self-reliance. “We’ve trained them in motivational interviewing to get the person to think for themselves about what would be best for them,” Kerwin explained. “To help them to just have better self-management.”

Kerwin said she’s excited to have the first five peer supporters matched with community members, and that program organizers are preparing to recruit more people to take the training.

“This approach is not very well documented yet throughout the United States, so we’re kind of at the cutting edge,” she said.

Groundbreaking programs, of course, mean research opportunities, and Elizabeth Beverly, Ph.D., Heritage College assistant professor of family medicine and investigator in the Diabetes Institute, is already planning how to study the program. At this point, Beverly said, she’s considering both a program evaluation of the peer supporter training and a study examining the impact of the peer support program on diabetes outcomes and quality of life.

Darlene Berryman, Ph.D., R.D., executive director of the Diabetes Institute, noted that creative efforts to support those with diabetes are needed in rural settings, and that research to show programs’ effectiveness is critical for their sustainability. “We are so proud of the work that has been done to establish Diabetes Community Partners, and we our indebted to those community members willing to serve as peer mentors,” Berryman said. “We hope that the research completed under the direction of Dr. Beverly will assist our institute to continue providing meaningful programs to our community members.”

Romine, meanwhile, is excited about how the program can benefit people in the area with diabetes – including peer supporters like herself.

“I was eager to get involved in this program because I’ve been learning from the knowledge of the other people in the group and from the facilitators,” she explained. “So it is a two-way street. I hope what I can share with others will be of assistance to them, but at the same time, I am walking away with more knowledge than I had going in. What we’re really trying to do is to provide an additional resource to people who don’t know where to turn.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the program, and participating as either a peer supporter or someone seeking peer support, should contact Kerwin at 740.593.0037 or Karie Cook at 740.593.2908.