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Last year, facing the first Christmas in the times of COVID meant that for many people, celebrations were very different to other years. Our huge Italian family gatherings were put on hold because the idea of sharing food around a table, sitting in close proximity, and basically bringing together thirty or so loud Aussie-Italians, all shouting, because we all believe we need to be heard over everyone else, was considered not especially COVID-safe. Instead, we met in parks for catch ups, physically distanced and masked up. 

We also waived gift giving for the year. Instead, I made donations in the names of all my cousins’ kids, and for the Secret Santa gifts we (thankfully) didn’t have to buy. (I remain especially Grinch-like about this particular Christmas activity and you can read all about why here.)

Charities are continuing to do it tough. Not only are fewer people able to donate, but more and more people are relying on their services to get through. 

Insulin for Life is once again running its Secret Santa campaign and what a great way to share some love this festive season! All donations make a difference, but to give you an idea, if you can spare $5, you’ll be providing a week worth of diabetes supplies – insulin, syringes, and glucose strips – to someone with diabetes in an under-resourced country. 

There’s lots of information available on the Insulin for Life website, but this one statement certainly brings home just how dire the situation is for so many of our diabetes brothers and sisters around the globe: For every two people alive with type 1 diabetes, one person has died prematurely due to lack of basic care.

Let me just share that again: For every two people alive with type 1 diabetes, one person has died prematurely due to lack of basic care.

Even though I have been volunteering for years now for different diabetes-related charities that support people with diabetes in under-resourced countries, I haven’t become immune to feeling shock when I see the stark truth written out in such simple terms. 

Every single person can make a difference and improve the situation for people with diabetes in these situations. Donating is not possible for everyone, but there are other ways to help. If you are on social media, you can amplify the cause and share this blog post, or the donation link with a few words explaining how impactful donations can be (use the hashtag #IFLSecretSanta). You can organise a fundraiser at work, school or with friends – doing the legwork to make things like that happen are important and make a huge difference too. You could do a Facebook or Instagram fundraiser. You can pass a hat around at Christmas drinks and ask people to throw in any loose change they have. No amount is too small. Every contribution matters.

I was just chatting with some of the amazing people from the Insulin for Life team, and I was thrilled to hear donations are already coming in from the community. Of course, I’m not surprised. The diabetes community has always been amazing at giving back, as evidenced by the amazing efforts seen over the years with Spare a Rose. 

Insulin for Life’s Secret Santa campaign is just getting started. Last year was the first year, and the community stepped up. And in 2021, even after the absolutely horrendous year so many have had, there are people in the DOC showing up to support the campaign once again. That’s what this is all about. It’s what it’s always about. 

Please click on the image and donate if you can.

Over the course of this year, I have been involved in a number of diabetes-related initiatives and events organised by the World Health Organisation. I remember the first email I received inviting me to be involved in an event because I was impressed with the communication about diabetes. There was a clear commitment to centring the lived experience, and it seemed that whoever was coordinating the project had an excellent understanding of the condition. I wasn’t sure if anyone involved was living with diabetes themselves, but I was certain they were working with people with diabetes to help shape the messaging. The most recent event, just last week, was coordinated by someone in the diabetes community – someone I’ve met in person and interacted with online for some time, and someone who is an excellent communicator with an in depth understanding of the global diabetes stage. 

And so, you would think that with all this diabetes intel and track record of great engagement that I would be surprised when the WHO made a spectacular blunder on Twitter yesterday with its efforts for World Diabetes Day. 

Except, I wasn’t surprised. At all. Because I know exactly how it happens. It’s the very definition of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and it’s all too common when comms teams don’t work with the teams focusing on lived experience. 

September marked twenty years I’ve worked in diabetes organisations in Australia. On top of that, I’ve been involved with the IDF for the last decade, as well as other diabetes organisations and companies around the globe. And in that time, I’ve seen some absolute clangers – clangers of which I first became aware once someone had hit share, and people with diabetes were, quite rightly, baying for blood. I’m not going to mention any, but I can tell you that I am still in therapy for a campaign that involved clowns, sharks, and spiders. Sigh.

It’s a horrible feeling when the community fury starts, and it’s directed at something you feel you should have been ahead of it or stopped it from happening in the first place. 

It’s also horrible to be put in a position of seeing this happen and not knowing what to do about it, or rather feel that whatever you do, it’s going to cause trouble. At the IDF Congress two years ago, sitting on stage in a panel with the newly minted IDF President, I was put in that position. After the President used a stigmatising image in his presentation, I had two options: sit there and say nothing or call it out. Option A would have resulted in people with diabetes not understanding how I could let it go. Option B could have resulted in furious IDF powers that be and me never working with them again. 

Option B was the only thing I could do. I knew that. But I cannot tell you the fear I felt as I spoke out on that stage, or afterwards. I barely slept that night, terrified at what was going to happen. Before the sun was up the following morning, I sent my boss, the CEO of Diabetes Australia, a message asking for an early breakfast meeting, linking him to a tweet with video of what had happened the evening before. In the back of a cab through the still-dark streets of Busan, I was so worried that I was going to be told that I handled it the wrong way and that I shouldn’t have said anything publicly. But that’s not how he responded. 

By that evening, I’d spoken with the IDF President, as had a few others, and together, we planned to pen an article about the how language can stigmatise diabetes. It was published the following year in The Lancet, and you can read it here

Last year, I stuck my head about the parapet when a state-based diabetes organisation in Australia (one for which I worked for 14 years) got things wrong when they were putting together an event with last year’s Australia of the Year (who has, I’m sad to say, been very stigmatising about type 2 diabetes since he stepped onto the diabetes stage). It was uncomfortable for me to write about the disappointment I’d felt seeing the language being used in promotion for the event, but I found myself in the same situation as I’d been at the IDF Congress the year before. I knew I had to say something. Because staying silent isn’t an option, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. 

I look at the way the comms team at Diabetes Australia operates now and the incorporation and focus on lived experience means that we run campaigns like this year’s stigma campaign and last year’s diabetes burnout campaigns. (And yes, I am completely biased because I work at Diabetes Australia, but this integration is something that means our messaging is far more hit than miss.)

Perhaps the thing that organisations need to reflect upon when something like this happens is just how easy it is to avoid doing it again. Despite yesterday’s clumsy efforts, WHO is already a long way there to doing better next time. It really is simple – work with community advocates, because there are always people who are keen and willing to be involved (hand raised!). And identify the people in the organisation who can help shape messaging and get it right. The WHO has those people there already meaning that it can happen straight away. (And for organisations that don’t, employ those people now.)

Over the last two days (or last two middles of the night if you’re perpetually in the wrong part of the world as it seems I am), I participated in the excellent first World Health Organisation Global Diabetes Compact Forum. (You can read the Compact which was launched earlier this year here.)

Once again, the WHO team had brought together stakeholders, including diabetes advocates, from across the world to talk about some critically important challenges facing people living with diabetes. These included access to insulin, research and innovation and prevention, health promotion and health literacy. The Forum was definitely not a ‘sit and be lectured to’ event. It was interactive, with everyone having the opportunity to participate and share their experiences and perspectives. The chat function was open and there was a constant stream of engaging, energetic discussion and sharing. 

The final session was about prevention and in his introduction, James Elliot, who expertly moderated the event, laid the foundation for the discussion. As with the previous sessions, there were no pre-conceived ideas or narrow focus about the topic. 

Prevention isn’t just about prevention of type 2 diabetes. There is a lot of work also going on looking at prevention of type 1 diabetes. And also, once living with diabetes, looking to do what we can to prevent diabetes-related complications.

When I spoke, the first thing I wanted to highlight was the problem I feel with the word prevention, and I revisited previous discussions in which I’ve been involved which highlight the struggle I feel with the word prevention. For too many people it is a word that offers a promise – a promise which guarantees that we can prevent aspects of diabetes that are often well beyond our control. I presented my case for instead focusing on how reducing risk is a far more accurate description of what efforts are truly about, a perspective that I have noticed is being used more and more.

The discussion pivoted to being about complications and associated stigma. Thankfully, this is not the start of the conversation about diabetes-related complications and the way people see them. When I wrote this piece back in 2013, I wrote about the way complications were presented to people with diabetes and how non-modifiable factors such as genetics, are rarely part of the conversation. There seemed to be a very one-dimensional presentation of diabetes-related complications: ‘take care’ of yourself, and you won’t get them. 

With communication around complications starting to be included in the language matters movement, I could see that too many people had been told that over-simplistic tale. 

It all got taken up a very significant notch when there was a concerted effort in the DOC to encourage dialogue about diabetes-related complications in a non-judgemental and safe way. Suddenly, we were seeing the hashtag #TalkAboutComplications accompany people’s stories, or questions others might have. This led to a real shift, as more and more people shared their experiences, with many saying that it was the first time they had seen others being so open about what was often considered a taboo topic. Starting to peel away the shame and secrecy of what can be a scary part of life with diabetes allowed many people to seek support from peers and help from health professionals. 

The legacy of the #TalkAboutComplications idea is that is that there are far more conversations today about diabetes-related complications. There is also a plethora of blog posts, podcasts, journal articles and conference presentations about the topic. I know that there is still significant stigma that we need to chip away at, but actually being able to easily find places online where conversations about complications are normalised and being part of those conversations is contributing to reducing that stigma. 

The session at the Global Diabetes Compact Forum was terrific because it tied together diabetes-related complications and stigma. With the theme of access this World Diabetes Day, perhaps we need to think about what that means when it comes to diabetes-related complications. While we absolutely do need to think about all factors at play when it comes to the development of complications, we also need to acknowledge that access is a factor when it comes to outcomes. Access to the right information, including information about risk reduction, access to insulin, access to glucose monitoring devices, access to complications screening, access to early diagnosis and treatment, access to peer support, access to stigma-free treatment, access to mental health support…all these have the very real potential to influence outcomes. 

Gosh, there’s lots in the #DOC-iverse (#DOC-osphere?) about seeing diabetes, isn’t there? Yes, yes there is. Not sure about you, but I seem to be seeing a lot of bright, shiny, happy people (and a pop star or model or two) talking about diabetes, when usually they are pretty quiet about the whole diabetes thing. Which is fine. No one needs to spend their time advocating all about diabetes every minute of the day. 

But I wonder if any of the marketing boffins who threw together their messages of inspiration bothered to check to see what the International Diabetes Federation are up to for World Diabetes Day on 14 November. Afterall, that’s the showstopper event of the month, isn’t it? Celebrating the birthday of the bloke who I give thanks to every day for keeping me alive.

A bit of history about World Diabetes Day to help understand that it’s not just about privileged folks with diabetes showing off their high-tech gadgets strapped to their impossibly beautiful bodies. (And yes, I know I sound like the Grinch who stole World Diabetes Day, but I think that understanding the foundation of this day is kind of important because that all seems to get swallowed up in PR spin.)

World Diabetes Day means something. In 2006, it became an official United Nations Day thanks to United Nations Resolution 61/225. At the time it was one of only two official UN health days. But even before that, World Diabetes Day had been going on for some time. It was in 1991 that the IDF, together with the World Health Organisation, created World Diabetes Day in response to growing concerns about diabetes. 

Over the last thirty years, World Diabetes Day themes have aimed to be inclusive of people from around the globe, but perhaps there has been a (necessary) focus on how to improve diabetes outcomes for people in under-resourced countries. Maybe that’s why I find it a little galling when it appears that the day is about showing off your latest diabetes kit or shouting to the globe about how diabetes doesn’t stop people reaching their dreams. I love positivity and I’m often accused of being far too Pollyanna for my own good, but having a good look beyond our own privilege is important if we’re trying to get across a global idea of what is going on in the world of diabetes.

This year the theme is ‘Access to care: if not now, when?’. The World Diabetes Day website is full of resources that explain the theme. There are materials you can share to help explain just what access means to different people. 

It all seems to be a little bit of a throwback to community initiatives of the past. The diabetes community has been the creators of some absolutely stellar campaigns – ideas that seem to have been founded in similar frustrations about which I’m smashing on my keyboard today. In 2014 there was a campaign that asked us to ‘Put the World back in WDD’ which was in response to there being a very Western focus on World Diabetes Day. Sometimes it feels that some things never change. The #Insulin4All hashtag that was first used to highlight how people in under-resourced countries struggle to access insulin is now most often linked with insulin pricing in the US.

Access means different things to different people, and the materials the IDF has put together consider this. Even if you live in a well-resourced country, with decent subsidised, tax-payer funded (never free!) healthcare, it’s likely that some part of your diabetes care is still difficult to access. It may not be insulin or diabetes supplies that are your access issue – it could be mental health support or different tech solutions.

Here in Australia, thanks to Medicare, the PBS and the NDSS, we have well-subsidised diabetes care. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly better than I hear from friends in other places around the world. But there definitely are still deficiencies in our care. Mental health care is limited – and almost impossible, it seems, to access. Only 50% of people with type 1 diabetes can access subsidised CGM and Flash GM through the NDSS. People in rural and remote areas of the country have far more difficulty accessing quality, regular diabetes care. The outcomes for Indigenous Australians with diabetes fall far behind. As always, people who are disadvantaged in some way are disproportionately affected, and face more difficulties accessing the care they need.  

How you choose to celebrate (or not) this month and World Diabetes Day is entirely up to you. You may choose to ignore the ‘official’ theme of the day and focus more on other initiatives and once again, all perfectly okay. Just as YDMV, so may your diabetes advocacy. 

But if you are interested in focusing more on access, have a look at the World Diabetes Day website and pledge your support for greater access to diabetes care. Read about the Resolution that was adopted by United Nations Member States that calls for urgent, coordinated global action on diabetes. 

Look, I know. UN Resolutions don’t sound nearly as sexy as a six pack with a CGM plastered to it, but it is pretty cool that the WHO and the UN are talking diabetes. 

And while celebrating the centenary of insulin, learn where insulin is not easy to come by, and why that is. Through volunteer work supporting both Life for a Child and Insulin for Life, I have learnt a lot about the challenges faced by people with diabetes in under-resourced countries. If you can, please consider making a donation this month to either, or both, charities. 

And if looking to the community, it’s wonderful to know that there will be a docday° event on World Diabetes Day that is dedicated to the theme of access. You can learn more about that event here. It’s free to join, and will be live streamed on Facebook – you don’t even need to sign up.

But perhaps a final thought. How great would it be if those with really, massively high followings, (and followings not-only-in-the-diabetes-community), used this time to talk about making a real difference – a difference to people with diabetes who are struggling to access the basic drugs and supplies to actually live with the condition. 

Sure, ‘seeing diabetes’ helps raise awareness, but as ever, I ask how much of that actually cuts through and gets out of the community that is already seeing diabetes every single minute of every single day? 

A poster from the IDF World Diabetes Website. (Click image to be taken to site.)

Last week’s Diabetes Australia Language Matters Global Summit was a terrific, snack-sized event that packed a lot into (just over) an hour. An absolutely stellar panel including Greg Johnson, Jane Speight, Partha Kar, Stephanie Haack, Nina Tousch and Tim Skinner made for an interesting, hopeful, encouraging and enjoyable discussion. I’m really proud of the way we were able to bring together people with diabetes, clinicians and researchers, offering different perspectives and ideas about why language matters.

During the event, Diabetes Australia launched our latest Language Matters Position Statement – ten years and one month after we launched our first. You can find it here.

If you missed the Summit, you can watch below.

Disclosure

I work at Diabetes Australia. I was involved in organising this event and hosted the panel discussion. I’m sharing this because I am choosing to.

I facilitated an event for Ascensia (disclosures at the end of this piece) last night/early morning and the crappy time was partly (mostly) my fault, because although I sacrificed the Aussies and suggested we draw the short straw in the time zone lottery, I forgot that daily saving would have kicked in for us meaning kick off time was 11pm and not 10pm. That may not seem much – I mean, what’s an hour? – but there is definitely a psychological barrier about doing work after midnight. (Anyway, I digress, and that paragraph has just about put me to sleep). 

The reason for last night’s adventures after dark was a facilitating gig for Ascensia’s latest Diabetes Social Media Summit (DSMS). The thing I love about (and why I am so keen to be involved) in these Summits is because they have tacked some difficult topics that are often hidden away. 

This one was no different in that we looked to address something that needs more attention – diabetes and women’s health. In my introduction, I wanted to make the point that diversity and inclusion is important when speaking about any aspect of diabetes, and that for us to be truly inclusive in a discussion about women and diabetes, we needed to hear from women who represent all corners of the diabetes world. I particularly referred to needing better representation from women in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The other thing that we had wanted to make sure that we didn’t focus too much on diabetes and pregnancy, because so often that is the only easily information about women’s health and diabetes that can be easily found (and saying that, there does seem to be a bias towards women with type 1 diabetes). Of course, understanding and being aware of how diabetes can impact on pregnancy is important, but it is certainly not the only issue that women with diabetes want or need to know about. 

In fact, one of the discussion points was that for some women, pregnancy is not a topic they want discussed. There is the assumption that all women of childbearing age need information about having a healthy baby when that is not the truth. Contraception discussions do not necessarily equal an invitation for pre-pregnancy counselling, and there needs to be some sensitivity in how healthcare professionals in particular raise the topic, and rid themselves of the belief that all women want to have kids.   

There is so much more to talk about. So, so much more. 

We touched on how much our cycles can impact and influence glucose levels (and a very amusing tangent where we joked about how when we see monthly perfect glucose patterns, they clearly don’t belong to people who menstruate – or people who understand the absolute havoc hormones can wreak on CGM traces).

We spoke about birth control and how the OCP can also make a significant difference to glucose levels, yet many of us were not told about that. 

Of course, we spoke of menopause, but only briefly; briefly not because it’s not an important topic (or a super relevant topic), but because we just got caught up talking about other things (and perhaps my facilitating skills weren’t as tight as usual).

And we spoke about how cultural gender issues need to be shown and understood so that the experience of privileged white women with diabetes are not seen as the only experiences. 

For me, the central message that I heard time and time and time again was that topics about the very things that occupy a lot of the headspace of women with diabetes are simply not discussed with us. And there is little research to inform our decision making, or even to help us form the right questions to ask. At best, we are given some piss-weak explanation that points a finger at diabetes being to blame. At worst, we are dismissed. 

I do wonder when research and diabetes education will catch up. I know that there are some wonderful researchers doing some important work here, but we are so far from normalising discussions about women’s health and diabetes as part of our typical healthcare routines. We’re miles away from getting rid of the preconceived and outdated ideas about women’s sexual health. 

Beyond discussing different women’s health matters, we also spoke about just how these discussions fit in the diabetes community. This was a completely unplanned turn for the summit (it was not a topic on the agenda), but I’m glad we had it and I’m glad that I am writing about it. Because of the nature of women’s health, sex and diabetes, there is a lot of taboo, shame, fear, and vulnerability. I know that some of the rawest and most open I’ve been in my writing has been when I have been dealing with moments in my life that were so, so hard and I was so, so vulnerable. When I look back, I sometimes wonder if I was right to hit publish after writing, and perhaps I should have tucked away the paragraphs until I was feeling stronger. Or not published at all. While I have been told that my words have provided some comfort to others facing similar challenges, it left my gaping, open wounds very public and visible. 

After writing about miscarriages, I’ve been called selfish for wanting to have a child and potentially passing on diabetes to them. Writing about my fears of passing on diabetes to my child I’ve been told that perhaps I should have thought of that before I got pregnant. Speaking about body image concerns, I’ve been told to toughen up and stop being so shallow. I’ve seen and watched other women with diabetes experience the same thing, and I feel their pain as I watch them navigate the muddy, and sometimes distressing waters. 

We spoke about how women are treated in the diabetes community, particularly when we write about struggles and difficulties, and the words and terms that are thrown our way when we dare to share how we are feeling. The ‘angry woman’ trope that I’ve written about before has been directed to many others too. 

These discussions are real, and they are necessary. I am one of the loudest, most vocal supporters of peer support and have spoken about the value and importance of diabetes peer support and the online community on stages literally around the globe. Peer support saved me at times when I thought I was broken beyond repair. But it also can be a source of pain and bullying and nasty confrontations, and perhaps we need to have those discussions too so that when someone decides that they are ready to share and be especially vulnerable that they look out for themselves as much as looking out for the community. It’s all very well to want to share to connect and help with our own and others’ isolation but leaving ourselves exposed isn’t easy. 

One of the attendees last night reminded us that we could share with selected friends in the community, still allowing for that peer support but under the protection of a safe space. It’s interesting, because until maybe two years ago, I had never experienced how unsafe the community can be to individuals. I’d not felt that before. While I still share a lot, these days  I’m more inclined to turn to those trusted friends in the DOC who I know will be honest, open, but never nasty or judgemental. 

Online spaces are different for women than they are for men. The misogyny that is inbuilt to even those that we think are allies comes out, often surprising us, as throwaway comments about a woman’s age or appearance. It is ever present in the diabetes community too. I’ve rolled my eyes as some of the most vocal advocates who have loudly aligned themselves as being supporters of women, revert to type, with snide sexist commentary. I’ve seen people in the DOC referred to as ‘angry old women’ for daring to be furious, older than 25 and a woman! I roll my eyes now when I know someone has called me angry. I also know that they’ve just announced to everyone how threatened they are of women who dare to not go quietly, and how they expect us to remain in our place!

There was so much more that we could have spoken about last night. We didn’t touch on body image and disordered eating (and yes, I know that this is not the domain of women only, but this is about us!), we didn’t talk about sex all that much either, even though it is often highlighted as an issue that needs more coverage and information. Again, it’s not because they are not important topics; it was because the fluid conversation took a feminist turn that highlighted a highly biased social and healthcare environment where it is seen as perfectly fine that the needs, and concerns of fifty percent of the diabetes community are barely considered.

Perhaps if we had a more feminist approach to, and model of, healthcare, the misogyny that has meant the topics important to us have not been researched, and are not discussed, could be eliminated. And women with diabetes would not be feeling ignored.

Disclosure

I was invited by Ascensia to help plan the agenda for #DSMSWomen and facilitate the discussion. I have been paid an honorarium for my time. 

Another large diabetes scientific conference is happening and alongside it, another docday in the can. 

If you go back through the Diabetogenic archives, you’ll find a bucketload of posts about previous docday° events, including the very first one which was memorable for being in an overheated backroom of a café in Stockholm, the cinnamon buns served at said café, and Josephine, a diabetes advocate from Sweden stripping down to her underwear to show off her Anna PS gear. (If you’re looking for tops and jocks to snugly store insulin pumps, Anna PS is still the best place to go!)

It’s a far slicker event these days. Even before we went all virtual, the IRL events were held in cavernous convention centres alongside the actual conference. This was great for lots of reasons: it means that you can easily pop into docday° from the main program, and a variety of stakeholders started to come along. While docday° very much remains the domain of diabetes advocates and the work in the community, it was great to know that we were sharing our news with HCPs, researchers, industry and more. Plus, the temperature control was better. The biggest negative was that cinnamon buns were not as easy to find. 

Last night’s docday° was as memorable as ever, with a dynamic program of advocates from across the globe. A number of people wanted to address the issue of diabetes and stigma, and I introduced this topic with a quick overview of the Diabetes Australia National Diabetes Week Campaign, and one of the videos we made. From there, we heard Ken Tait and Michael Donohoe speak about the stigma experienced by people with type 2 diabetes, and Salih Hendriks and Dan Newman speak about how stigma impacts on open discussions about diabetes-related complications. Dan’s talk was one of the most powerful I’ve ever heard, and I will be thinking of his words for a long time. 

There was lots more in the two-hour event. Please do watch it!

I am an advisor to the #dedoc° voices program. I do not receive any payment for this role. 

I applied for and received a press pass to attend EASD 2021. 

The current COVID-19 situation in Australia is not great. We seem to be on the cusp of a major outbreak, centred on a growing wave of new diagnoses out of NSW. Watching it all unfold from Victoria is somewhat triggering, and eerily familiar. The difference in 2021, of course, is that we now have vaccines to help combat the virus. Admittedly, our vaccine rollout is nothing short of a disaster, and that’s a massive problem when there is an outbreak like the one we’re facing right now. 

And so, that brings us to last night’s latest throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-will-stick approach that seems to be the method preferred by the Australian Government. And the latest shit is a new advertisement with the aim of encouraging people to get vaccinated. For the record, it hasn’t stuck.  

I’m not going to share the ad because it is traumatising. The general gist is that it shows a woman who appears to be under forty years of age in hospital with COVID struggling to breath. She is intubated. 

It is terrifying. 

Setting aside the fact that the woman in the ad probably couldn’t have been vaccinated even if she desperately wanted one (our rollout is still being managed by age, and under 40 year olds are certainly not anywhere near at the top of the queue yet), or that, according to healthcare professionals, there is no way that she would have been left untreated if she was struggling to breathe in that way, the way this advertisement has missed the mark is outrageous for a number of reasons:

It blames the individual for not doing the right thing rather than looking at the systemic issues that have hampered the rollout, which includes precuring enough vaccines, starting the rollout late, blundering the messaging, messing up distribution … and everything in between. 

It terrifies people and is likely to not illicit a response other than fear. 

There is no consideration for people who have COVID right now. How would family of someone currently in hospital feel seeing this? How traumatising would it be?

I watched the ad – once only and with the sound down after the first 4 seconds – and felt a ginormous sense of déjà vu. A fear-based ad campaign has been the basis of diabetes campaigns for many years, despite pleas from the diabetes community to do something better, and a realisation that the general community wasn’t bothering to pay attention. 

Thankfully, in recent years here in Australia, we’ve moved away from scary ads, understanding that we can provide a hard-hitting message without using scare tactics. Diabetes Australia has absolutely nailed that in recent years, firstly with a three-year campaign raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. And we are now in year two of a campaign looking at the mental health aspects of diabetes. (As ever – my disclosures are important. I work at Diabetes Australia and have been involved in all these campaigns.)

Advertisements based on fear and blame don’t work. Last night, I kept seeing people online harking back to the Grim Reaper campaign that was launched in the 1980s to raise awareness of AIDS, some claiming that it was brilliant because they still recall it. I remember the TV ads. But what I know now, but didn’t know then, was that one of the major flow-on effects from this campaign was stigma directed towards gay men – added stigma, I should say. This stigma took many years to turn around. Notoriety doesn’t not equal an effective campaign. 

But jeez, it sounds familiar! 

Here we are this week talking diabetes-related stigma and how we undo it, and part of that stigma – the misunderstandings about diabetes – came from campaigns being run by diabetes organisations. While I’m thrilled that here in Australia we’re doing a better job at moving away from that (albeit with a hiccough here and there), not all people working in diabetes organisations got the memo. It was just eighteen months ago that I sat on a panel with the incoming IDF President and had to address his idea that ‘fear arousal’ was worth considering as a way to raise awareness of the seriousness of diabetes. 

No. 

Just. No. 

And so, back to the disaster of the COVID vax ad. If only instead of terrifying, there was a focus on incentivising. If only instead of putting all blame on the individual, there was a celebration of communities coming together. If only instead of finger pointing at people desperately ready to get a jab there was acknowledgement of how difficult and confusing it’s been. 

If only…

This was my response to Professor Andrew Boulton’s suggestion that we use ‘fear arousal’ in diabetes campaigns. I wasn’t having any of it. Footage from the International Diabetes Congress in Busan, December 2019. Thanks to Georgie for the video, which was first shared on in this tweet.

I generally don’t do my best work at 2am. I’m just not the spring chicken I used to be, and being awake, engaging and remotely coherent when I am usually in the middle of some decent REM sleep is a big ask these days. 

But living in Australia, and wanting to remain as active as possible in global diabetes work and activities has meant that I have had to suck it up and learn to get on with it. I’ve become expert at stealthily getting up about so as not to wake my family, moving like a ninja about the house. I make a pot of tea, have hypo supplies handy, and layer on red lipstick to create the illusion of being alert and awake, completely together and impossibly glamourous (I fear I am only fooling myself) before settling into do whatever it is that I am needed to do in the wee hours. 

Last night, it was a 1.30am call for a 2am event. I’d snuck in a couple of hours sleep ahead of the rude alarm that woke me. When I logged onto the event platform, I still had my ‘morning voice’ on, but the hot tea helped lubricate – and wake up – my vocal cords. Thankfully I was only required to speak and not sing an opera. (Silver linings!)

But despite grumbling about the hour, I’m glad I did it. Because the following couple of hours was a discussion about hypoglycaemia that combined lived experience stories from people with diabetes, peer support, all articulated with fabulous input from clinicians and researchers.  It really was an exercise in how to put together an online diabetes event! 

The event was the Lilly Hypo Summit, and I co-hosted with Bastian Hauck who is an absolute pro in any hosting seat. When I was asked to be involved, I had visions of a very staged and scripted event. I have worked with industry enough to understand that their compliance rules often means that events are required to be defined to the nth degree with all content being scrutinised by legal eyes, leaving little room for spontaneity or free discussion. How could we possibly get the true experience of hypos across if we were constrained by needing to stick within a pre-planned programme? I mean, hypos don’t do that, so discussions about them surely shouldn’t have to – and simply couldn’t if we were to do it justice. 

Amazingly, we managed to put together an engaging and somewhat impulsive and free-formed event with full support from the global engagement team. They trusted the PWD who were shaping the event enough to understand that what we were trying to do was be respectful to the people telling their stories by not in any way censoring them. Plus we promised no one would throw caution to the wind, and talk about replacing their traditional diabetes management with bathing under a full moon and dancing to the beat of an inner drum (or something), which considering last night was a full moon, was a pretty important promise to make. We created a space for PWD to share their stories and highlight the incredibly complex challenge that is hypoglycaemia, and we punctuated those stories with research and clinical advice. 

I knew that it was going to be a good event, because the speakers were remarkable. When it was over, I had dozens and dozens of messages from people congratulating me on my hosting, but there is a secret that I feel I should share. Hosting is impossibly easy when you are interviewing brilliant people. And it was programme overflowing with brilliant people. The PWD who spoke had fascinating tales to tell, and told them in wonderfully disarming ways. I’d not met them all and it was great to be just as surprised as the audience when hearing their stories. And then we had two remarkable researchers who I respect greatly, and I know to be incredible communicators.

I really want to write more about what was discussed at the event, and will try to do that in upcoming posts, but for now, I just want to share this world cloud. We asked people to describe their hypos in one word. I’ve done exercises like this before and they never, ever reveal the same words. This is what the group came up with last night:

But to finish this post, I want to ask the question that one of last night’s HCPs, Pratik Choudhary, from the Leicester Diabetes Centre in the UK, asked us: ‘Do you see hypos as a slope or a cliff face?’ I can’t stop thinking about this, because I’ve never been asked about hypos this way, but it makes so much sense to consider them in this context. Of course, there are so many factors at play, but this either / or scenario does perfectly capture the in-the-moment way that I feel about hypos. I wonder what you might think about your hypos. Does it fit in here, or is it something completely different?

DISCLOSURE

I was an advisor to Lilly Diabetes for the Hypo Summit. I have been paid for my time. I have not been asked to write anything about the summit, but am sharing because there was so much amazing content at the event. No one has reviewed this post prior to publication. 

As someone who spends far too much time sharing far too many things across far too many online platforms, this Hartley Lin cartoon for the New Yorker hits far too close to home. (But it made me laugh all the same.)

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