Vanderbilt Health’s Virtual Diabetes Classes Improve Patient Outcomes

Diabetes is one of the most expensive diseases to manage, costing Americans more than $327 billion each year in health care spending and lost productivity. Fortunately, studies show that patients can significantly improve their diabetes management and medication adherence by participating in diabetes education.

To support patients with diabetes, Vanderbilt Primary Care began offering diabetes classes in 2020. After a short stint of in-person classes, COVID-19 caused the organization to move to a virtual environment, and attendance grew exponentially. The free, one-hour courses are held four times per month on Zoom, and they are available to all Vanderbilt Primary Care patients through a provider or nurse referral.

“One pandemic silver lining was realizing that it makes more sense to offer these classes virtually,” says Philip Cook, Director, Practice Quality and Innovation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Virtual classes give people more access.”

A Robust Curriculum
Vanderbilt’s virtual classes cover the basics of diabetes, lifestyle management, dietary changes and medication management. VHAN’s pharmacy team also stepped in to provide support related to diabetes medications.

“While there is well-defined coursework covering different topics from week to week, people are free to come and go as they see fit,” Cook explains. “Some people come to a few classes, and others take classes multiple times because they enjoy learning and connecting.”

Initial results show that many patients who engage with the program improve their diabetes. Vanderbilt reviewed data from 10 patients who have attended at least two classes and found that all 10 patients had a reduction in their HbA1C after attending.

One patient saw a reduction in weight, triglycerides and glucose levels while also lowering his A1C from 7.6 to 5.2.

Up Next: Hypertension
Prompted by the success of the diabetes classes, Vanderbilt added a virtual hypertension class this year. The curriculum goes over how to manage hypertension through diet, lifestyle modifications and medications.

Hoping to offer patients in-depth education about hypertension medications, Cook invited VHAN’s pharmacy team to collaborate on the curriculum. The VHAN pharmacy team helped create a section of the class devoted to hypertension medications, and they plan to revisit the curriculum regularly to ensure it is up-to-date and accurate.

How to Create a Disease Management Class for Patients
For practices looking to build their patient health education around disease management, Cook offers a few tips for creating a virtual course:

  • Find the right educators. Teaching patients requires specific skills that not everyone possesses. Cook recommends finding a nurse or another staff member who has an interest in leading a diabetes or hypertension education effort, and then equipping them to follow through. “The passion our nurses have for patient education is essential,” he adds.
  • Engage providers. A virtual class will only work if providers know about the course and then refer patients to it. Remove any roadblocks and make it easy for providers to connect their patients to the educational opportunity.
  • Adapt the curriculum from trusted sources. “Our diabetes management curriculum engages patients through simple, straightforward information and allows them ample time to ask questions,” Cook explains. The American Diabetes Association has free education resources that can help practices develop their own curriculum.
  • Track and share patient outcomes. Cook notes that health care will always be constrained by limited resources, which is why it’s important to find ways to prove that your class is effective.

Cook and his team strive to make the virtual classes flexible and accessible. “Our patients are as engaged as they want to be,” he says. “If they want more health coaching beyond the classes, we make that available. It’s our goal to meet them where they are.”

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