Atlanta church tackles diabetes management among members

Ronnie Oden always thought he managed his diabetes pretty well.

He didn’t know how out of of step he was with his care, however, until he participated in a unique program at Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue.

He started to focus on the areas where he had fallen short, such as diet and exercise.

“I started taking a closer look at my health,” said Oden, 61, an operations manager for a parking facilities management company. “It helped me to understand how I might feel if I didn’t do this.”

Big Bethel, one of the city’s oldest African-American churches, was recently selected to participate in an Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute project aimed at providing a sustainable community-based approach for diabetes research and management.

The ACTSI is a citywide partnership that includes Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University, Georgia Tech and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

The e-HealthyStrides program trained members of the church’s health ministry as coaches. The 20 coaches worked with more than 100 members with diabetes. They used a Web-based application on health skills to improve self-management of diabetes that included advice on healthy eating, exercise, taking medication, reducing risks and developing coping skills.

Using the Web applications, members monitored such things as blood glucose levels and blood pressure and received instant color-coded feedback that allowed them to see their progress. That allowed them to immediately discover areas that needed work. They could also go to other areas on the site to research how to make changes and get more information on the disease.

More than 25 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association’s 2011 report. An additional 7 million are undiagnosed.

If trends continue, projections say as many as one in three American adults will have diabetes by 2050.

Oden, of Riverdale, was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago. “The doctor kept telling me to watch my diet and to exercise,” said Oden, who followed orders — to an extent. But one day while at work he began to feel faint and weak. The news was not good. “The doctor said, ‘Well, it’s (diabetes) here.’ ”

His wife, Alicia, participated in the e-HealthyStrides program as a coach. Although she doesn’t have diabetes, her maternal grandmother did. While her grandmother managed it with medication and diet, she said, “trying to keep her on the straight and narrow, as far as diet was concerned, was a challenge for my mother and a constant struggle in our household.”

Dr. Priscilla Pemu, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine and the ACTSI principal investigator, said the program, which recently ended, left participants with viable tools.

Too often, she said, researchers will work in a community “then go away,” which irritates community partners.

But with this program, she said, those partners have “the skills, knowledge and resources” to continue.

Pemu said the relationship between coaches and those with diabetes is continuing and the church still uses the Web program. She also said coaches can use their training in the larger community.

Other churches have already contacted Pemu about participating in similar programs.

The Rev. Gregory V. Eason Sr., the senior pastor at Big Bethel, sees that as part of a church’s mission.

“We believe that God wants us to be in a right relationship with him spiritually,” Eason said. But “we also believe that God wants us to be healthy physically.”

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