Diabetes Alarmism?

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Pretty much everyone with Type 1 diabetes — and many people with Type 2 diabetes — knows that managing their condition commonly involves a series of daily blood glucose checks, blood glucose fluctuations that are often unpredictable, and frequent adjustments with insulin and fast-acting carbohydrates to make sure their blood glucose doesn’t get too high or low. Yet much of the general public still knows very little about diabetes, often not realizing the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 or believing that one or both types can always be corrected by a simple drug regimen.

So it’s probably important that news and media outlets tell stories like the one recently featured by The New York Times. In a 12-minute video entitled “Midnight Three & Six,” filmmaker Joe Callander shows how the Chamberlain family of Fort Worth, Texas, manages 15-year-old daughter Grace’s Type 1 diabetes. The family’s routine involves frequent blood glucose monitoring during the day — often at the suggestion of Grace’s glucose-sensing dog, Jackie — as well as three times each night when one of the parents gets up (which is where the video’s title comes from). Grace’s mother explains that these steps are necessary because her daughter’s diabetes is “volatile,” with frequent blood glucose spikes and drops that can’t be easily predicted. She expresses her fear that Grace could die of her condition, mentioning that four of Grace’s friends with Type 1 diabetes — presumably including online friends — have died, and that Grace recently attended a friend’s funeral.

Comments left on the video’s page at the Times range from supportive and understanding to skeptical that the family’s situation is as dire as they say it is. Some commenters wonder why Grace doesn’t take advantage of continuous glucose monitoring (CGM), which might eliminate the need for her parents to wake up during the night because the monitor would sound an alarm if her blood glucose dropped too much. Grace’s father explains in another comment that she doesn’t wear a monitor because it would be yet another device to contend with, and that they’re hesitant to change their routine until an artificial pancreas becomes available, which they expect to happen in the next few years. Other commenters suggest that Grace’s experience with Type 1 diabetes isn’t typical, and that the video spreads more fear than information — possibly in an effort to collect donations for Grace’s future artificial pancreas (a fund has been established).

Yet it’s possible that portraying Type 1 diabetes as both a disruptive and deadly disease is just what is needed to build up public support for funding research and treatments. As a post about the Times video at Healthline.com’s Diabetes Mine notes, some advocacy experts believe that people with diabetes haven’t succeeded at rallying the public behind their condition the way that people with other health conditions — such as breast cancer and HIV — have. And as a recent article in Time magazine suggests, public pressure on insurance companies may be essential to get them to cover artificial pancreases, once those devices become commercially available.

What’s your take on very negative portrayals of diabetes like the one in the Times video — is emphasizing the risk of death a good tactic to build public support and awareness? Is it better to portray Type 1 diabetes as an inconvenient condition that still lets people live full and happy lives? Do news and media organizations have a responsibility to show only “typical” examples of health conditions, or to show a range of experiences when profiling a disease or condition? Leave a comment below!

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