The 2018 death of a teenage patient was a wake-up call for Children’s of Alabama pediatric endocrinologist Mary Lauren Scott, MD. The patient had type 1 diabetes and had been admitted numerous times over the previous few years with sky-high blood sugar. He died at home from diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a diabetic emergency in which the body breaks down fat for fuel because it doesn’t have enough insulin.
In response, Scott, who also has type 1 diabetes, took action. She and her team searched their data and found 10 patients in the previous year who had been admitted three or more times with DKA. Such admissions are a red flag that the patient isn’t taking their insulin doses at home and that they have a risk of dying or having a medical emergency they can’t recover from.
“When you’re dealing with a chronic disease such as diabetes and patients have recurrent hospitalizations, we get burnt out too,” she said. “That makes it difficult to have the kind of positivity, motivation and drive to help them surmount the insurmountable and deal with what, for them, feels impossible. It’s hard, it’s complicated, and it’s not uplifting when you feel like you’re not able to help the patient.”
Scott, who was already directing a clinic for children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes, started another clinic in 2018 specifically for these high-risk patients. The primary goals of the clinic are to prevent hospitalizations and saving lives. The patients are all adolescents, at an age when they—instead of their parents—typically start handling their insulin injections and blood glucose tracking.
The clinic meets half a day each month. The focus is on communication. Parents, social workers, nurses, nurse practitioners, diabetes educators and counselors work as a team to build trust with the teenagers. “We speak to them differently to get them to open up to us more than they perhaps ever have with other providers,” Scott said.
That means ensuring them there is no shame attached to missing insulin doses; what’s important is that they talk about it. “We tell them, ‘We need to know how to help you, so we can help you find success,’” Scott said. “We try to make the focus more about what’s working for [them] with [their] diabetes, what’s not working, and what [they] think would make things easier.”
Patients must go six months without hospitalization before they graduate from the program.
The clinic is not just for patients, but for their families, as well. The patients are often drawn from minority and low-income backgrounds and have single parent households, Scott said. “The parent works and is also trying to manage a teenager who’s depressed or burnt out,” she said. “They can’t do everything.”
Because many of the parents have a history of interaction with child protective services, they rarely opened up to the staff about their child’s difficulties. With the new approach, parents are now more likely to talk about what’s happening at home and what they need help with. “That’s where we typically find success for these patients,” she said.
The results have been impressive.
- 14 of the original 15 patients graduated. The one remaining is the youngest patient with significant home life issues.
- 8 of the 14 had a lower A1C when discharged.
- 6 of the 14 had no DKA admissions while in the clinic; all had three or more before joining the clinic.
- 12 of the 14 had fewer missed visits even though they came to clinic monthly instead of every three to four months.
- Half had lower rates of DKA.
- 12 of the 14 started continuous glucose monitoring while in clinic, and four also received insulin pumps, leading to a dramatic improvement in their health.
- No patients died.
There are currently eight more patients enrolled, and more will be invited in the coming months, Scott said.