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Peer Support: The Missing Link?

Jul 19, 2021

By Tamara Oser, MD

“What doctors overlook is how important it is to simply have emotional support, to know they aren't alone, which inspires people to take care of themselves.” 

As medical professionals, we may be experts in certain realms of diabetes, but our patients are the experts in living with diabetes. Unless we live with diabetes ourselves, we cannot truly appreciate what it is like to manage the many aspects of diabetes 24/7/365. And every person’s experience is not the same. We may also not be best suited to be able to offer the sustained support so crucial to helping our patients with diabetes thrive. 

As a family physician I care for many patients with diabetes. At times, when juggling exam findings, lab values, medication refills, prior authorizations, and the many other components of providing care, it can be easy to forget to think about the emotional burden that living with diabetes may present. As healthcare professionals we may not be aware of “tips and tricks” that help patients thrive with diabetes and can only be learned from lived experience.


Through peer support communities [people with diabetes] have learned critical pieces of diabetes management that were never discussed in any medical encounters.


I have learned this first-hand as both my husband and daughter live with type 1 diabetes. I have seen the many positive impacts their peer support communities have had on their diabetes management, emotional well-being, and helping them to know that they are not alone. Through peer support communities they have learned critical pieces of diabetes management that were never discussed in any medical encounters. I’ve seen the benefits of peer support for my T1D daughter’s twin sister. She has been able to better support her sister and father as a result of the support she has received herself—most prominently through the organization Children with Diabetes® and their wonderful sibling program.  I am a better wife and mother to people with diabetes because of peer support. Being able to talk and learn from others who also support people with diabetes has helped our family thrive with diabetes. Learning from others living with diabetes has helped me become a better physician.

Peer support can be a crucial part of managing diabetes and is associated with positive impacts on clinical and behavioral outcomes. Based on our family’s anecdotal experiences, my husband (also a family physician) and I decided that as researchers we wanted to know more about the pros and cons of peer support, as well as to move beyond the concerns that some have around the safety of peers supporting one another to see how safe or unsafe the information they share actually is. In so doing, we have helped generate the evidence that peer support matters.

As medical professionals the following can be opportunities to share and learn from the benefits of peer support. 

  1. Patient blogs provide a glimpse into our patients’ lives in unique ways that may very likely not occur during their encounters with the medical team. They are available any time and can be a great place for healthcare professionals to begin to explore the wealth of information available in online peer support communities, as well as to better understand what living with diabetes outside of the walls of the clinical encounter consists of. “Six Until MeSix Until Me” was one of the original patient diabetes blogs and there are now hundreds of others. Consider observing the weekly #dsma twitter chat to learn more about the daily realities of living with diabetes.
  2. If you educate learners, incorporate online peer support communities as an opportunity for medical learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom. This can be a way to help learners gain a deeper understanding of, empathy for, and insight into the lives of patients with diabetes. While we were at Penn State College of Medicine, together we designed and taught a popular elective, but one might also consider asking learners to identify an online peer support resource that they would feel comfortable referring patients to and implementing this into their care of patients. Consider providing the ADCES handout “Learn, Connect, Engage” to learners and encourage them to explore the included resources to increase their comfort in referring their own patients to peer support communities as they become independent medical professionals.
  3. Refer patients to online peer support communities, and when you see them back for follow-up ask them how it went and what they learned. Encourage open dialogue and create a safe space to discuss any potential medical misinformation together.
  4. Don’t forget that peer support can be valuable for family members and care partners.

We have the opportunity to become better healthcare professionals if we take the time to learn from patients’ lived experiences. Patients with diabetes often do best with access to multidisciplinary teams. Peers can be highly valuable members of that team, and the support they provide may prove to be a missing link in providing the best care for our patients with diabetes.


ADCES Perspectives on Diabetes Care

The Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists Perspectives on Diabetes Care covers diabetes, prediabetes and other cardiometabolic conditions. Not all views expressed reflect the official position of the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists.

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HEALTHCARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your diabetes care and education specialist or healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. To find a diabetes care and education specialist near you, visit DiabetesEducator.org/Find.

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