The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among Americans ages 12 to 19 has grown from nine percent to 23 percent in less than a decade. In an effort to reduce U.S. adolescents’ diabetes risk, researchers at Stanford developed a school-based program where medical residents train healthy at-risk teens to be self-management coaches for family members diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers tested the initiative, called the Stanford Youth Diabetes Coaches Program, over the course of a year at three Bay Area high-schools serving primarily ethnic minority youth of low socioeconomic status. The study involved 97 adolescents – 49 student coaches and 48 non-participant students. Student coaches participated in an eight-week training course that was taught by family medicine residents and modeled after the Stanford University Diabetes Self-Management Program for adults. All participants completed pre- and post-study questionnaires and a select group of student coaches and family members gave in-depth interviews.
The program emphasized communication skills, problem solving and setting achievable goals using action plans. Beyond providing basic diabetes knowledge, the program also included guidance on nutrition, healthy meal planning, physical activity, weight management and stress management and on developing relationships with health-care providers. Student-coaches engaged with their family members during weekly 30-minute sessions where they shared information about topics they learned in class, discussed their relatives’ experiences and goals and helped them make an action plan for the week. In discussing their findings, study authors’ wrote:
The results of the study indicate that the Stanford Youth Diabetes Coaches Program increases knowledge and psychosocial assets of participant youth … Youth participants also reported positive changes in their own lives as the coached family members, and family members emphasized the importance of student coaches’ role in encouraging healthy behaviors. Additionally youth participants reported high program satisfaction.
These results substantiate current work suggesting that school-based programs benefit adolescents and that children have potential to support the self-management of family members with diabetes. Evidence strongly suggests that school-based programs hold promise to improve the health of at-risk adolescents.
“This study really speaks to the question of: How do you engage teens about their health?,” said first author Liana Gefter, MD, a research associate in Stanford’s Center for Research and Education in Family and Community Medicine. “The effectiveness of the program is rooted in the idea of empowering students to be a leader in a setting where they are traditionally only told what to do. A lot of the students really had a transformation during the eight-week course. Our findings demonstrated that after only eight weeks, compared to non-participants, students had significant increases in self-worth and belonging – assets that have been shown to be necessary precursors for adopting healthy behaviors. In this way, we believe the program could lay the foundation for sustainable health improvement.”
During interviews with researchers, student coaches and diabetes patients said the program inspired them to improve their diet and increase their regular physical activity. Additionally, they noted that the program strengthened their relationships with each other, and students reported their appreciation for having a physician come into their classroom.
In light of the program’s success, Gefter and colleagues Nancy Morioka-Douglas MD, MPH; Eunice Rodriguez, MPH, DrPH, and Lisa Rosas, MPH, PhD, are working to expand the program to underserved schools at other sites in California and around the country. Pilots are currently underway, or will begin, at campuses in Delaware, Georgia, Washington, Ohio and Michigan.