During SXSW 2012, Kerri Sparling, creator of the diabetes blog Six Until Me, was gracious enough to swing by our Austin office for an interview. As one of approximately 26 million people affected by diabetes in the United States, Sparling understands first-hand the mental, physical, and emotional impact diabetes has on peoples’ lives. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age seven (with the first symptoms presenting when she was six, hence the title of her blog), started one of the first diabetes blogs in 2005, and today is one of the most prominent and influential voices in the online diabetes community. I was excited to talk to her about what she views as social media’s impact on the online diabetes community, and what tips she has for companies looking to become involved with this community:

How do you think social media benefits patients online?

Type 1 diabetes is 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Social media helps fill in the gaps between the information you get from your doctor during your brief visits and the actual application of that information in your health management. The community provides the emotional support that helps you deal with the day-to-day. There is empowerment in that support.

How do people with diabetes use various online channels in different ways to find support and information?

What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. Like each person with diabetes manages their condition differently, so do they manage their social media lives differently. The ability to choose what works for you is the best part about social media. Some people just lurk anonymously, while others share everything that is on their minds. Some people seek and provide information through blogs, but doing so requires a much bigger time commitment than Twitter, for example. Many people like watching videos because they can put a face to the information, which feels more personal. Actually seeing the other person’s face helps them to remember that other “real people” are living with this disease, as well, and there’s a lot of support found in knowing you aren’t alone.

As someone who has been in the space for a long time and is well-connected, how do you think healthcare companies interact effectively with the diabetes community?

Here are a few points healthcare companies could benefit from:

  1. Develop Relationships within the Community: Developing an understanding of the online diabetes community through observation is a “good company strategy,” but it is important for companies to actually reach out to members of the community to develop actual relationships with them. Rather than simply studying community members to learn about them as patients, companies need to take an interest in patients as real people with names, lives, emotions … the whole person.
  2. Be Consistent: Having the same person or people within a company consistently engaging with me allows me to begin to trust those individuals and, as a result, the company. Earning trust is important when discussing something as personal and intimate as your health.
  3. Develop a Partnership: When a company builds real relationships with established and trusted members of a community, they also gain varying levels of understanding. Through these relationships, companies are better able to understand the various and daily hurdles patients negotiate every day, and increase their rapport. The more you put real people in front of the patient population, the more they may identify with what the company’s trying to say to them.

What is the one thing you think is most important to know regarding the online diabetes community?

It is really important to recognize the psychosocial aspect of diabetes. Diabetes is a unique disease in that it often comes with “a side of blame.” People often blame patients for having the disease, saying that they got diabetes because they did not take care of themselves.  Or that a high blood sugar number before breakfast is because “they did something wrong,” when so many times those numbers are the result of diabetes just being … diabetes.  Patients need to realize their self-worth isn’t defined by their numbers. They need to work toward good health but realize that having consistently high or low readings doesn’t mean they are bad people – it just means they need to try something new in efforts to reign things in. Acknowledging the emotional aspect of this disease isn’t enabling a patient to ignore their disease, or absolving them of any responsibility, but instead to empower them to keep trying and keep working towards the best health they can, despite the daily challenges of life with a chronic illness.

Sparling will be keynoting the Type1Now Conference 2012 on March 31 in Austin, Texas.

To learn more about Kerri Sparling, you can connect with her on these channels:

Blog: Six Until Me

Facebook: sixuntilme

Twitter: @sixuntilme

YouTube: sixuntilme

dLife: Kerri Morrone