Guest Post: Health Literacy and Diabetes Social Media by Martin Wood

On November 4, 2010 by Cherise Shockley

Health Literacy and Diabetes Social Media

Have you ever been to a doctor and walked out with additional information, but not additional knowledge? That thought as you pay your bill and walk toward the parking lot of, “I still don’t completely understand what he was talking about.” If history is any predictor of the future, it doesn’t matter how well studied we are on diabetes, there will always be more information that we could stand to know.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “information” as “knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event; intelligence.” The definition of the word “knowledge” is “the fact, state, or condition of understanding.” So in order for us to be able to use the valuable intelligence that we get from our healthcare team about our diabetes (or any other condition we may have), we must be able to understand it. Without understanding, we don’t have knowledge; and without knowledge, we can’t take action.

As patients, we get all kinds of medical and clinical information from our doctors, but we don’t always get the understanding of what that information means in our everyday lives. Doctors have gone to school for years to acquire the knowledge to understand a vast array of medical information. Patients often just get what bit of information we need to know during our 15 minute appointment, and not much more. Without a better understanding, we can’t translate how information relates to our daily lives. We must rely on experience, be it our own or the experience of someone else, to connect the two together. Even then, we can be left lacking if we don’t take a more proactive role in learning about our health.

Allison over at Lemonade Life recently blogged about how she strives to stay up-to-date on diabetes news and research. Like many of us, she relies on this information, along with logs and charts of her own diabetes data, to make day-to-day decisions about diabetes. Knowledge takes effort to acquire, but should be considered part of having a long-term condition like diabetes. Having the confidence to make decisions ourselves, such as adjusting insulin dosage, without the hands-on of our doctor requires us to look at our diabetes from a bigger perspective than simply “Prick, test, dose, repeat.”

For example, say you notice that you’ve been experiencing high blood sugars, but can’t seem to find any rhyme or reason to them. You schedule an appointment with your endocrinologist (or other doctor, whomever you use to help you make decisions about your diabetes), and after reviewing your blood sugar and food logs (You do keep those, right? Right.) he tells you that your postprandial blood sugars are elevated. Well great! Now what does that mean? All you want is a simple solution that you can understand to get your blood sugar levels back down in normal range!

Now granted, a good doctor will attempt to explain to you what he is talking about, but that doesn’t mean that he has time to tell you everything about postprandial blood sugars, especially in the context of how they relate to your particular diabetes situation and lifestyle on an everyday basis. You may only see your doctor once every three months (You do keep regular appointments with your diabetes care team, right? Right.), which leaves a considerable amount of time in between for questions to come up.

Health literacy is being able to translate an elevated postprandial diagnosis (information) into something you can understand and take action on (knowledge). You somehow have to bridge the gap between “What the Foghorn Leghorn does postprandial mean?!” to “Thanks doc! So you’re saying that my blood sugars two hours after meals are running a bit high, so maybe I need to make some adjustments to my post-meal basal rates or up my insulin-to-carb ratios.”

Experience is the tie that binds information and knowledge, and it comes from all kinds of places. Beyond our own adventures, experience comes from talking and sharing with others. That is one of the key strengths of social media, to be able to poll the audience, share with the crowd, and learn from others’ trials and errors. With diabetes, none of us should have to figure out all of the answers on our own. Thankfully, with networks like TuDiabetes that just passed 17,000 members, the Diabetes Online Community, publicly accessible libraries and information, conferences, advocacy groups, diabetes bloggers, your healthcare team members, friends, and family, we don’t have to. We can learn from each other about how to manage our diabetes, and hit the moving targets.

The definition of social media is always changing, as are our levels of health literacy. We are always going to be curious about our bodies, and trying to figure out how they tick. Sometimes we will turn to healthcare professionals for the answers, and other times we may turn to our peers, the diabetes bloggers, the people we follow on Twitter, and our Facebook friends who are “in the know” about diabetes in their own lives. Sharing is caring, and certainly you can’t believe everything you read (ahem…cinnamon anyone? Thanks Kerri!), but there are many of us who share our real world experiences online, allowing others to learn from both our successes and challenges. No matter where we turn, or how social media changes, we will always need each other and our collaborative experience of living with diabetes to turn information into knowledge we can use.

Martin Wood, Type 1, diagnosed May 11, 1981 (29 years). Blogger, active member of the DOC, diabetes advocate, medical librarian, and cyclist. More info can be found on my About Me page or my Twitter profile.

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