Diabetes Alert Day was introduced in 1988 and for decades has helped raise awareness about diabetes this significant medical condition.

During her early years as a nurse, Kim Ellis MSN, FNP-C, CDCES and founder of Ellis Diabetes Education & Consulting, LLC, discovered there was a big need for diabetes information in the communities she served, so she focused her specialty in helping folks with the condition and sharing education. She’s now known as the Diabetes NP (check out the Diabetes NP YouTube videos) and helps patients and nurses learn as much as possible about diabetes.

As nurses know, successful diabetes management is complex and looks different for every patient. Understanding your patient populations, their culture, and their traditions around food and activity can help nurses and patients create a successful plan, says Ellis. Nurses who are mindful and have cultural competence around the specific patient populations will be able to connect with patients and understand their motivations and any sources of resistance to better health.

“I always tell people it’s not always about the 1 to 10 steps,” she says. “Always be curious about your patient. Always keep yourself as a student, because learning doesn’t stop when you graduate.”

To help understand patients, Ellis recommends asking questions so that you can really learn about their culture. You’re less likely to offend someone when you are authentically interested in what they have to say and you are being open about trying to learn, she says. “Always ask permission when you want to ask questions. People appreciate that.”

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Nurses don’t need to know every cultural tradition, but they do need to understand the ones they might encounter.  “You typically have two or three cultures to come into your practice,” she says. “Make it your business to know those.” Getting out into the community where you work so you meet people where they are and begin to understand some lifestyle specifics will make a difference in how you and your patients relate to each other.

What are some things nurses might want to ask about? Ellis says ask about food, festivals, and the meanings of any food traditions. “I need to know that to come up with goals and plans,” she says. “And one that’s not coming from a place of restriction.” Ellis might be able to help people identify the best food choices and show them how to balance out something that a diabetes plan wouldn’t typically include, like a special event, but where people are going to eat.

Maybe the patient will want to be particularly mindful of food choices and check their blood sugar before they go to a family party and have a special indulgence. Then maybe they can go for a walk or incorporate some kind of movement after eating and check their blood sugar again. “We can adjust,” says Ellis, so the patient doesn’t feel like they are making a bad choice or one that they need to hide from her.

She advocates for being equipped with knowledge to help manage diabetes successfully. People can learn to load up on protein and drink lots of water to help make them feel full and keep their blood sugar more stable before they have lots of carbs. Carbs raise blood sugar and don’t create lasting fullness, so she tells patients how just making adjustments can help them eat foods they want to eat while also keeping their health front and center.

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Knowing that your patients need flexibility will go a long way to building their trust. “I like it when the light bulb goes off and people realize we don’t need to do some elaborate plan,” says Ellis. “A little can go a long way. Nurses can think outside the box to sculpt what will work for them.”

And whether you are trying to educate patients about prevention or about managing their diabetes successfully, Ellis recommends giving them the facts without being confusing. “Remind them of why their health is important to them,” she says. “Everyone has a why–whether that’s children, grandchildren, travel.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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