Diabetes Nurse Educators Help Others Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Are you interested in helping people learn about their health? An increase in the number of people diagnosed with pre-diabetes and diabetes has created a need for certified diabetes educators (CDEs).

In the U.S., nearly 24 million people have diabetes, and about 57 million have pre-diabetes, says Kim DeCoste. She manages the Diabetes Center of Excellence of the Madison County Health Department in Richmond, Kentucky.

Diabetes is a disease whereby a person's pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or their body does not properly use the insulin it makes. A person's body needs insulin to control the level of glucose (sugar) in their blood.

People with diabetes must manage much of their disease themselves. That means that they must make informed decisions about physical activity, food choices, taking medicine, getting important tests and exams, and many other areas that impact their health, says DeCoste.

"Diabetes educators are the people working with individuals to help them take care of their diabetes by making important behavior changes to help keep themselves healthier," she adds. "It is nearly impossible to do this without having the correct information and the support needed to make these changes."

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and adolescents. Type 2 diabetes can be related to body weight and activity levels.

The rising levels of obesity in North America and a growing diabetic population are two factors contributing to the need for health-care professionals like CDEs, says Patricia DiPietro. She is a registered nurse (RN) and a CDE at John Victor Machuga Diabetes Education Center in Wayne, New Jersey.

Risk factors for diabetes are growing. In addition to obesity, an aging population and more sedentary lifestyles are also contributing to the disease and the need for CDEs.

The work of diabetes educators is vital in helping diabetes patients maintain their health. Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney disease and lower limb amputation, as well as stroke and heart disease.

After DiPietro worked with patients and saw them suffering from poor diabetes care, she became motivated to teach people how to care for themselves.

"The ability to empower someone to change the course of their condition by helping them make changes in their self-care behaviors is energizing," she says.

Diabetes educators work in a variety of community- or hospital-based settings.

"Diabetes educators employed by hospitals may work with patients while they are in the hospital, or they may work in a hospital outpatient clinic," DeCoste says. "Other settings include community centers, hospital departments and physician offices."

Other career opportunities for CDEs exist in home health care, insurance company disease management programs and diabetes pharmaceutical companies, says Jean Kostak. She is a registered dietitian (RD) and CDE at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut.

Diabetes educators come from a variety of professional health fields. They include nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, exercise physiologists, social workers, physicians, mental health workers, podiatrists, optometrists and others.

"The core group funded in diabetes education centers is usually RNs and RDs," says Aileen Knip. She is an RN and a CDE. "Most children's diabetes programs have a funded social worker or psychologist in their practice."

In the U.S., those working in a health profession typically earn the CDE designation by passing an examination. To be eligible to take the CDE exam, you need an appropriate professional degree, typically in a health-related field. You must also meet other criteria, including 1,000 hours of diabetes education, says Kostak.

"A person who enjoys people, has a passion for listening before teaching, and is very familiar with the day-to-day difficulties of managing a chronic disease would fit in this position," says DiPietro.

"Besides being a health professional, you must also enjoy teaching," Knip says. "Most CDEs work in clinics where you are doing much group teaching or one-on-one teaching. You must feel very comfortable talking with groups of people. You need to have a good understanding of literacy and be able to adapt your teaching style to people of various cultures and literacy levels. You also need to be fairly proficient with program development."

The overall limitation of health-care coverage for diabetes and nutrition education is a challenge for the CDE field.

"Reimbursement is very limited, which puts a financial burden on hospitals offering educational programs," DiPietro says. "I believe that is the primary reason many diabetes programs have closed."

Motivating certain patients to make lifestyle and behavioral changes can also be a challenge, Kostak says. However, these changes are necessary for patients to help them better manage their disease.

To meet the demands of this career, high school students who want to work as diabetes educators should take classes in the biological and social sciences. These classes will prepare them for degrees in the health professions.

Become familiar with programs in the community that promote a healthy lifestyle. Look for diabetes organizations that advocate prevention and awareness, and volunteer with these organizations.

Volunteering in a health-care setting will give you experience that will serve you well in this career. There are plenty of opportunities to help others as a CDE.

"I find it very rewarding when a patient says 'thank you' for assisting them with dispelling myths about diabetes management and helping them reach their diabetes goals, and they are feeling well because of that," Kostak says.


American Association of Diabetes Educators
For resources on this career and stats on diabetes and educators

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International
Find out about volunteer opportunities and learn more about this disease

National Diabetes Education Program
Info on managing diabetes from the Department of Health

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