Local program being launched to teach self-management for chronic disease

WILLMAR -- Organizers of a local education program on chronic disease self-management hope it will help teach new skills to individuals learning how to live long-term with a chronic condition.

Power to the patient
A local education program on chronic disease self-management will begin next week with the hopes it will help teach new skills to individuals learning how to live long-term with a chronic condition, like diabetes. In this photo, a blood-sugar test is administered. Tribune photo

WILLMAR -- Organizers of a local education program on chronic disease self-management hope it will help teach new skills to individuals learning how to live long-term with a chronic condition.

The evidence-based program, consisting of six weekly classes, is being introduced in Willmar next week.

Whether it's arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, individuals with a chronic condition need to learn how to live with it as well as possible, said Connie Feig of the Atwater Area Living at Home Block Nurse Program.

"The disease is just a part of living a full life. It doesn't run their whole life," she said.

The program's launch is part of a wider state and federal initiative to focus on projects that promote wellness and use strategies shown to be effective.


Chronic disease is an obvious choice: An estimated 100 million Americans of all ages have at least one chronic health condition, and this number is expected to swell in coming years. Chronic disease also accounts for a growing share of U.S. health care expenses.

"People are living in their homes longer and they're dealing with more chronic disease individually and with their caregivers," said Kate Selseth, director of the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging.

Although working with their doctor is important for good medical management of chronic disease, for the most part the responsibility for day-to-day management -- taking medications, adopting lifestyle changes and so on -- rests with individuals, Selseth said.

Giving them more skills to self-manage their health not only helps them fare better but also can encourage them to become more engaged as patients, she said. "This gives them an opportunity to work more with their health care providers."

Selseth and Feig recently underwent training to become the instructors for the chronic disease self-management program, which is based on research done at Stanford University to identify best practices that help people self-manage chronic health conditions.

In Minnesota, the program, which is federally funded, is available in more than half of the state's 87 counties. As of Sept. 30, just over 900 people had participated.

The free classes, for individuals age 21 and up, are designed to invite a high level of involvement by the participants. Topics range from physical activity, healthful eating and fatigue and pain management to problem-solving and communication.

Participants are asked each week to set goals that help them put the principles they learn into practice. They'll also be paired with a buddy with whom they can exchange information and support between sessions.


"They learn from each other," Selseth said. "The person who has been struggling for a long time can learn from the newly diagnosed. It's really for anyone. They all bring something to the table."

Feig said the program "is not a support group and it's not for couples. It's for an individual who wants to learn how to manage their chronic disease for the rest of their life. ... How do you modify your life so you can make things happen for you? This class does not give solutions. It gives tools to creating your own solutions. It's trying to help put that vision in place."

According to studies that have followed up with individuals between four months and two years after participating in the program, they report fewer emergency room visits, fewer hospitalizations and shorter stays in the hospital.

Many participants also report feeling more comfortable asking questions during doctor visits and being more engaged as patients.

"People have said it just opens their eyes," Selseth said.

Standard surveys are administered after each session and after the conclusion of the program to get feedback. The data are being collected by the Minnesota Department of Health to measure the effectiveness of teaching chronic disease self-management skills and whether it has an impact on behavior, cost and outcomes.

Feig and Selseth said they plan to offer the program twice a year to start with. No referral is necessary. They also have been working with the local medical community to help spread the word.

A third trained instructor is slated to join later this year. And depending on demand, classes could eventually be offered more often.


It's sometimes difficult for people to accept the news that they have a chronic disease, especially if they blame themselves for it, Feig said. "The emphasis is on not beating yourself up. It's "This is the point we're at, let's move forward.' It's really a freeing thing."

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