A Novel Nursing-Driven Standardized Diabetes Education Process in Primary Care

June 21, 2016
Carlos E. Mendez, MD

Ashar Ata, MBBS, MPH, PhD

Joanne M. Rourke, NP, CDE

David Greenawalt, PhD

Jorge Calles-Escandón, MD

Volume 4, Issue 2

A new nursing-driven diabetes education process established within a patient-centered primary care model significantly improved diabetes control for veterans at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center.


Objectives: To evaluate the impact of a new nursing-driven education process on diabetes control within the patient-centered primary care model at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center (SVAMC) in New York.

Study Design: Retrospective cohort study with matched control analyses.

Methods: Established patients in the primary care clinics of the SVAMC with uncontrolled diabetes who had a baseline and a follow-up glycated hemoglobin (A1C) were included. Patients with documentation of the new education process were selected (n = 166). Changes in glycemic control of A1C and weight (body mass index [BMI]) were calculated and compared with those of the control group (n = 977) for the study period. Control-matched analyses were also performed between groups.

Results: Glycemic control improved significantly in the study group, reflected by a mean A1C reduction of 0.94% point after the new education process. In contrast, A1C deteriorated slightly for the control group or did not significantly change for the matched control group. No significant changes in BMI were observed in each group.

Conclusions: The establishment of a new nursing-driven standardized diabetes education process in primary care resulted in significant improvement of glycemic control. Similar diabetes education processes using existing resources could be adopted in other primary care settings at low cost. Prospective studies may be necessary to confirm long-term effects and cost effectiveness of such programs.Obesity and diabetes are major health problems affecting veterans. Although about 9.3% of the general population in the United States has diabetes,1 the prevalence among veterans has been estimated at 25%.2 The economic costs of treating diagnosed diabetes in the United States were assessed at $245 billion in 2012, a 41% increase over the 2007 estimation of $174 billion.3 Unfortunately, future projections point to a steady rise in diabetes, suggesting that by the year 2034, the number of Americans with diabetes could double, adding a significant strain to the healthcare system.4

As a chronic condition, diabetes requires continuous medical care and ongoing reinforcement of self-management skills to reduce the risk of acute and long-term complications. Diabetes self-management education (DSME) provides support for informed decision making and problem solving, facilitates optimal self-care behaviors, and promotes active collaboration with the healthcare team to improve clinical outcomes, health status, and quality of life.5 Current guideline recommendations consider DSME as an essential component of the optimal management of patients with diabetes.6 Patients receiving DSME from certified diabetes educators (CDEs) at programs recognized by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) or American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) have been shown to be more likely to receive care in accordance with recommended guidelines and to comply with diabetes-related prescription regimens, resulting in lower costs and utilization trends.5

Given the large patient population in need of diabetes education and the limited availability of CDEs in our institution, the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center (SVAMC) in New York, a multidisciplinary team was formed to produce strategies aimed to incorporate and improve diabetes education in the outpatient primary care setting. The multidisciplinary team designed a standardized diabetes education process that would allow non-CDE registered nurses (RNs) to provide quality diabetes education to veterans with newly diagnosed and/or uncontrolled diabetes within the existing primary care Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) model in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). We reviewed retrospective data to evaluate the impact of the new education process on diabetes control within the PACT clinics of our institution.

METHODSThe Education Process

Prior to implementation of the new education process, nurses provided diabetes education using any available education materials; some, for instance, used magazines or content found on the Internet, while others used outdated Veterans Affairs (VA) booklets from 2004 that contained obsolete concepts. Education content also varied depending on the specific nurse’s knowledge of diabetes. Diabetes education was provided at the discretion of the RN, with no way of monitoring the percentage of patients with diabetes who received education within primary care.

In early 2012, a multidisciplinary team was assembled to work on the new diabetes education process, consisting of a nurse practitioner (NP) CDE, RNs from primary care and the diabetes specialty clinic, a registered dietician (RD) CDE, an RN patient education specialist, a PACT pharmacist, and the Health Promotion Disease Prevention program manager, who is also an RD. The team held biweekly meetings to design the new process, with the goal to improve and standardize patient diabetes education in the PACT clinics. VHA-endorsed diabetes patient education materials were reviewed to select those aligned with best practice. A flip chart and a booklet— Self-Care Skills for Patients With Diabetes and Self-Care Skills for the Person With Diabetes, respectively—were chosen and then revised to reflect local practices. Internal funding was obtained to produce quality color copies of the flipcharts and booklets.

The team wrote a standard operating procedure (SOP) that described in a stepwise fashion the education encounter between the PACT RN and veterans. Approval of the SOP was obtained from the institution’s nursing and medical executive committees. The target population was composed of patients enrolled at any of the PACT clinics with uncontrolled diabetes (glycated hemoglobin [A1C] ≥7%) or newly diagnosed diabetes. The PACT RN care manager could initiate the process independently or by acting on the primary care provider’s request. A new note title—Diabetes Education - Primary Care—and medical record template note were created and approved to allow proper documentation of this new education process in the electronic medical record (eAppendix, available at www.ajmc.com). Having a standard note title allowed us to periodically track diabetes education notes for quality improvement. The template note was developed to ensure accurate documentation of content taught in a time-efficient manner.

PACT RN care managers from the main facility and satellite clinics were given the VHA-approved patient diabetes education materials produced by the NP CDE on the multidisciplinary team, and they were trained in their proper use and documentation as delineated in the SOP. New RNs received training about the diabetes education process by the NP CDE when they joined our facility. The program was introduced facilitywide in October 2012. As outlined in the SOP, the primary care RN meets with the patient and reviews the flipchart binder’s diabetes education topics, which include hyperglycemia; hypoglycemia; how to use the VA formulary glucose meter; healthy eating and carbohydrate awareness; when to seek further treatment and/or medical advice; and, if applicable, oral diabetes medications, insulin administration (using vial and syringe or insulin pen and disposable pen needle), and proper disposal of used syringes/lancets/pen needles. All veterans receive the Self-Care Skills for the Person With Diabetes booklet to take home. The RN documents the teaching encounter using an approved template note with dropdown boxes corresponding to each topic listed above. If the RN identified a veteran who could benefit from more comprehensive diabetes education, the RN requested that the primary care provider cosign the note so appropriate consults (nutrition, social work, pharmacist, or DSME) could be requested.

Study Design and Patient Selection

To evaluate the process, we performed a retrospective cohort study that included all patients with uncontrolled diabetes who established care with the primary care clinics of the SVAMC and satellites clinics of the Eastern Upstate New York region. The study proposal was submitted and approved by the SVAMC Institutional Review Board.

Data were extracted from the Veterans Integrated Service Network- 2 Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) and the Veterans Affairs Regional Data Warehouse (VARDW). Data from VistA were collected via a Massachusetts General Hospital utility multi-programming systems routine and imported as a spreadsheet to a Microsoft SQL server database. They were merged with the VARDW data by means of specific SQL queries.

Inclusion criteria consisted of patients with a diagnosis of diabetes and available A1C of 7% or greater obtained in the period from October 1, 2012, until March 31, 2014. Patients who had documentation of the new education process and a baseline A1C obtained no earlier than 3 months before the education encounter and a follow- up A1C obtained at least 2 months, but no later than 6 months, after the encounter, were selected and used as the treatment group (“Ed” group [diabetes education]). Patients without documentation of the new education encounter, who had a baseline and a follow-up A1C obtained at least 2 months but not later than 9 months apart during the same studied period, were also selected and used as the control group (“No Ed” [no diabetes education]). Thus, for both groups, A1C measurements were between 2 and 9 months apart. Additionally, when available, the first and last obtained body mass index (BMI) measurements were also collected for both groups.

The main outcome of interest was any change in A1C before and after the education encounter for the Ed group, and any change in A1C obtained routinely in the No Ed group in the same time period. BMI change was also examined for both groups. To avoid confounding, patients receiving either care in the diabetes clinic or DSME through the registered dietician/CDE during the study period were excluded.

Paired Student t tests were performed to calculate the differences between A1C and BMI for both groups. The percentage of patients who exhibited a decrease, no change, or an increase of the A1C was also calculated.

To adjust for differences in age, baseline A1C values, and length of time between A1C measurements between the Ed and No Ed group, a propensity score based on the likelihood of receiving the new education process was calculated for all subjects. Subsequently, subjects from the Ed group were matched 1-to-1 with the closest neighbor in the No Ed group based on their propensity scores. Changes in A1C before and after were again compared using Student t tests. Statistical significance was defined by an alpha of 0.05, and the statistical software STATA version 11.0 (StataCorp LP, College Station, Texas) was used for all analyses.

RESULTSSample Characteristics

Table 1 shows the clinical characteristics of study subjects for the final sample. After exclusions, the total sample consisted of 1143 patients. A total of 166 patients received the new education process (Ed group) and 977 received conventional care (No Ed group) in the same time period. No significant differences existed in the percentage of male subjects among study groups. On average, Ed subjects were 3.7 years younger than the No Ed subjects. The baseline A1C value was significantly higher in the Ed group than in the No Ed group (8.97 ± 1.60 vs 8.34% ± 1.33; P <.001). The mean duration between the baseline A1C and the follow-up A1C was significantly shorter in the Ed group compared with the No Ed group (124.6 ± 35.6 vs 169.2 ± 48.3 days; P <.001). Baseline BMI measurements revealed that most subjects were obese; BMI did not differ significantly between groups.

Outcome Measures

Table 2 depicts results of the changes in A1C observed during the study period. Glycemic control improved significantly after the education encounter in the Ed group (N = 166). Mean A1C decreased from 8.97% to 8.03%, representing a 0.94% point net reduction (95% CI, 0.70-1.18; P <.001). In this group, 69.9% of patients experienced a reduction of A1C, 27.1% experienced an increase, and 3.0% experienced no change. In contrast, glycemic control deteriorated slightly for the No Ed group (N = 977). A1C increased from 8.34% to 8.44%, a net increase of 0.1% point (95% CI, 0.05-0.12; P <.001). In this group, the proportion of patients whose A1C increased was 55%, 39.8% experienced a decrease, and 5.5% experienced no change. Matched sample analyses using propensity scores are also shown in Table 2. For the matched sample of the No Ed group (N = 166), glycemic control remained stable, as evidenced by a nonsignificant change in A1C from 8.85% to 8.77% over the study period (mean change = —0.08%; 95% CI, –0.12 to 0.28; P = .434). The Figure shows the changes in A1C for the 3 group samples.

There were 158 and 396 subjects with baseline and follow-up BMI information for the Ed group and for the No Ed group, respectively. For the matched No Ed group, only 96 subjects had available BMI information. For the Ed group, there was a nonsignificant 0.1 kg/m2 decrease in BMI, whereas for the unmatched No Ed, BMI decreased by 0.61 kg/m2 during the study period (95% CI, 0.39-0.82; P <.005). BMI of the matched subjects in the No Ed group also decreased by —0.86 kg/m2 (95% CI, —1.35 to –0.37; P <.005).


Our report suggests that, compared with conventional care, the new nursing-driven diabetes education process resulted in significant improvement in diabetes control within our facility. Our results are consistent with previous work supporting the value of DSME for improving clinical outcomes, such as lower A1C. In a meta-analysis of 463 studies, Norris and colleagues7 examined the effect of DSME on glycemic control. On average, they found that DSME decreased A1C by 0.76% point (95% CI, 0.34-1.18) more than in the control group, concluding that DSME improves diabetes control.

The high quality of DSME provided by CDEs in accredited/ recognized programs has been documented. Compared with those with no education, people with diabetes who had DSME encounters provided by CDEs in accredited/recognized programs were found to be more likely to show lower cost patterns, receive care in accordance with recommended guidelines, and comply with diabetes-related prescription regimens, all resulting in lower costs and utilization trends.5 However, in the primary care setting, patient diabetes education is often provided by non-CDE nurses. In a meta-analysis of 34 randomized controlled trials with a combined cohort size of 5993 patients, Tshiananga and colleagues examined the impact of nurse-led DSME on glycemic control.8 The authors reported results in accordance with ours: a significant reduction in mean A1C of 0.70% (95% CI, −0.95 to −0.45) point for nurse-led DSME versus −0.21% (95 % CI, −0.48 to 0.052) point with usual care.

In our study, significant improvement of glycemic control emerged in patients who received the new diabetes education process. The average A1C for this group decreased significantly, by 0.94% point, after the intervention. In contrast, in patients who did not receive the new education process, glycemic control slightly deteriorated, or, in the matched control sample, did not significantly change. The education process evaluated in this study was provided by non-CDE RNs in a DSME program not yet accredited or recognized by the ADA or AADE.

We believe the results of this study have important clinical implications. A1C levels have been shown to be directly associated with the development and progression of microvascular and macrovascular diabetic complications in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.9,10 Similarly, significant reductions in A1C, such as the ones shown in this study, have also been associated with substantial cost savings.11 In addition, because this new education process was designed to use already-existing resources, such as PACT RNs and VHA-endorsed teaching materials, costs associated with the establishment of this new education process in our institution were very low. Therefore, our results suggest that with similar restructuring and standardization of existing resources, effective and low-cost diabetes education could be delivered in other primary care settings. The intervention was designed and implemented relatively quickly, which suggests that it could be easily replicated in other VA medical centers.


Our study has several limitations. First, due to its retrospective nature, a causal association between the new diabetes education process and the observed reduction in A1C cannot be confirmed. Second, because of the short duration of the study, evaluation of the long-term effects of the process and sustainability of the observed results was not possible. Finally, the study was limited to 1 teaching VA medical center with a sample composed primarily of older white males; therefore, results cannot be generalized to other populations. Despite these limitations, our results strongly suggest that the education process was beneficial. A1C not only decreased significantly in the intervention group, but a slight and significant increase in A1C was observed in the large control group during the same study period. Further analysis that compared results with those of a matched sample from the control group confirmed the initial findings.


In conclusion, the establishment of a newly designed nursing-driven standardized diabetes education process in primary care resulted in significant improvement of glycemic control in our facility. Similar diabetes education processes using existing resources could be adopted in other primary care settings at low cost. However, prospective randomized controlled trials may be necessary to show long-term effects and cost effectiveness of such diabetes education programs in different settings.


The authors would like to thank Sonya Zdunek and Donna Reagan for their assistance in obtaining the data.

Author Affiliations: Albany Stratton VA Medical Center (CEM, JMR, DG), NY; Department of Medicine (CEM, JMR, DG) and Department of Surgery (AA), Albany Medical College, NY; Division of Endocrinology, Case Western Reserve University (JC-E), Cleveland, OH.

Source of Funding: None.

Author Disclosures: The authors report no relationship or financial interest with any entity that would pose a conflict of interest with the subject matter of this article.

Authorship Information: Concept and design (CEM, JMR); acquisition of data (DG, CEM); analysis and interpretation of data (AA, DG, CEM); drafting of the manuscript (CEM, JMR); critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content (AA, DG, CEM, JMR); statistical analysis (AA); provision of study materials or patients (JMR); administrative, technical, or logistic support (CEM, JMR); and supervision (JC-E, CEM).

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