Accelerating Best Practices in Peer Support Around the World

My Reflections from ADA 2014

Sarah Kowitt, MPH

Two weeks ago marked my second trip to the annual American Diabetes Association conference. Held in San Francisco, the conference brought together experts from around the world to tackle the most pressing issues in diabetes care and research. As a PhD student in Health Behavior, here are my takeaways from the sessions.

Meeting People from Around the World

The ADA conference was attended by approximately 17,300 people from more than 121 countries. Anecdotally, I heard that 40% of the attendees came from outside the United States. With a “World Cup Lounge” set up on the second floor where participants could watch live football matches, this was not hard to believe.

While presenting my poster on emotional support for patients with type 2 diabetes, I struck up conversations with a researcher from Montreal, a health educator from Orlando, a doctor from Nigeria, a diabetologist from Denmark, and a nurse practitioner from China. I also participated in symposia featuring peer support programs in Cameroon, Argentina, Hong Kong, and along the US-Mexico border.

Clearly, diabetes is an issue of worldwide concern and people from all over the globe were united in their quest to find solutions. As one attendee stated, “health is the world’s greatest equalizer.”

Multidisciplinary Perspectives

I was impressed by the variety of health disciplines represented in the conference; physicians, researchers, behavioral health scientists, nurses, dieticians, pharmacists, and a whole range of other health care professionals that conduct diabetes research or deliver diabetes care.

Overall, I think this points to several issues. First, because diabetes affects so many millions of individuals and is associated with so many other health conditions, a diverse team of health care professionals is needed. Over the lifespan, support is necessary for prevention, management of disease, care for early complications, hospitalization, and end of life support.

Second, this diversity speaks to the need for concerted policies, programs, and strategies to tackle diabetes. We are not going to find a magic bullet to solve our diabetes problems; rather, we will need coordinated, multi-level strategies.

More than Diabetes

Not only did people come from a range of professions, but also they were also interested in issues beyond diabetes.

For instance, I attended a session on the role of gut bacteria in diabetes and obesity, in which the presenters spoke about how the types of bacteria in our body influence our immune system, metabolism, and development of obesity and insulin resistance. Admittedly, as a PhD student in behavioral (not clinical) sciences, I was lost in some of the clinical language, but the links that the authors presented between our genes, environment, and immune system were fascinating. For instance, our gut is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms and different species of bacteria have different effects on appetite and metabolism. Healthy gut bacteria are thus crucial for appetite regulation, weight, metabolism, and insulin resistance.

I also attended a session on the overlap between diabetes and depression, sat in on a symposium extolling the benefits of high intensity, short duration exercise, and listened to speakers discuss the implications of New York City’s food environment on diabetes and obesity.

Diabetes is associated with a number of other conditions, including obesity, mental health disorders, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, to name a few, which explains why the conference participants were interested in so many different diseases. Research is starting to show that peer support is a strategy that can target both diabetes and comorbid conditions.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to join the 74th ADA conference. With 96 symposia, 50 oral abstract sessions, 10 interest group discussions, 18 meet-the-expert sessions, 10 special lectures and addresses, and more than 2,000 poster presentations, I was only able to experience a small portion of the conference offerings. Looking forward to next year!

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