A diabetes patient navigator program in Birmingham, Alabama, a joint project of the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation and Sanofi US, resulted in lower A1C levels for its participants. Patients also reported higher levels of satisfaction in managing their disease.
Deploying diabetes patient navigators among Birmingham, Alabama, at high risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) produced measurable reductions in glycated hemoglobin (A1C) levels, as well as patients’ perception that their care was improving.
In 2012, the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation (AAFP) and Sanofi US launched a collaboration to not only better connect T2DM patients with community resources, but also to convince those at risk that they could manage their disease. Results from the effort, called Cities for Life, were reported Saturday at the 47th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association, which is meeting at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California.
“Diabetes care involves patients doing what they need to do every day, 24/7, 365 days a year. Leading a healthy lifestyle makes all of the medicines work better,” said Edwin Fisher, PhD, of the AAFP Foundation. Yet patients who live in “food deserts” or have few safe places to exercise may have a hard time maintaining healthy lifestyles.
Cities for Life aimed to fill that gap by connecting patients diagnosed with T2DM or those at risk with navigators, who would not only help identify local resources to manage their disease, but also give patients education and encouragement about why a healthy lifestyle mattered. Patients were assigned to a navigator by their primary care physician (PCP). While some elements of Cities for Life were available to everyone in Birmingham, including a website with diabetes care resources, a group of 179 at-risk patients were tracked closely. Most (77.5%) were African-American women, and nearly all were overweight or obese. Patients heard from navigators an average of 6 times during the intervention.
Dr Fisher said Cities for Life benefited from enthusiastic, highly effective navigators as well as the participation of 80 community leaders who served on an advisory board. One Birmingham City Council member took a special interest in the program, Dr Fisher said, ensuring that it would receive staff support and follow-up. Community leadership and awareness makes a difference, Dr Fisher said.
Abstracts presented Saturday included a presentation of outcomes, with Natalia Loskutova, MD, PhD, as the lead author. Data showed that the study subjects started the 9-month intervention with average A1C levels of 7.7 and were able to drop that average to 7.1. Slight improvements were seen in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and patients reported improvements in their perceived ability to manage their disease.1
Dr Fisher said AAFP and Sanofi purposely selected Birmingham because it is located in a state that is among the top 10 in the country in T2DM incidence, and where health problems among the poor have long been seen to be intractable.2 By going “to where the problem is,” Dr Fisher said, researchers hoped to show the potential value of patient navigators, whose role could be replicated within a Patient Centered Medical Home.
What makes a good navigator? Dr Fisher said while most of the navigators in the Birmingham study had at least a bachelor’s degree, professional credentials were less important than having the right personal qualities. “They have to be reliable, caring, and have ‘emotional intelligence.’ They have to be willing to be part of team,” Dr Fisher said. Navigators needed to understand when to push a little harder, when to hold back, and when a problem required a referral to a PCP or specialist.
How replicable is Birmingham’s experience? “What’s replicable is how we tailored it to the community,” Dr Fisher said. He was the formal presenter of a separate abstract that analyzed the program’s effectiveness at the community level. Survey results showed Cities for Life increased community awareness of diabetes and patients’ perceptions of support.3 The project also revealed another challenge: the gap between providers’ and patients’ views of the level of family support for those with T2DM.4