Practice Self-Care to Improve Health

December 03, 2018

How much of your health is influenced by what you do outside your doctor’s office?  More than you may think – and research shows that people who learn how to manage their conditions feel better and have measurably better health.  The approach – called self-management education – teaches people strategies to feel better in daily life, even though they have an on-going health condition.  The good news is these proven programs are available in communities across Wisconsin, offering options to help with conditions ranging from diabetes to osteoporosis.


Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about half of all adults in the U.S. – 117 million people – have at least one chronic condition, like arthritis, diabetes, or asthma.  In Wisconsin, the proportion is higher – up to 59% of adults have ongoing health problems that require long-term management.  This public health epidemic has major consequences, both physically and financially.  Data analysis from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality shows that more than 4 out of every 5 dollars spent on health care in the U.S. are spent on people with one or more chronic conditions.


But despite a long history of success, self-management programs are underutilized.  “These programs have been proven to reduce emergency room visits, lower blood sugar levels, and improve self-confidence in handling stress,” points out Betsy Abramson, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, a non-profit clearinghouse for evidence-based healthy aging programs.  “Most county and tribal aging offices or Aging & Disability Resource Centers offer one or more of these programs – but often people don’t know they are available or realize how much they can help them improve their health.”  Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services and Area Agencies on Aging also encourage people to participate in evidence-based self-management programs, which are generally free or very low cost in communities all over the state.


Only 20% of a person’s health outcomes are dictated by what happens in a medical setting like a doctor’s office or clinic, according to data from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.  “That means that 80% of your health depends on your own behaviors, your environment, and other factors like education, income, and social connections,” says Abramson.  “Programs like Living Well with Chronic Conditions, Healthy Living with Diabetes, Walk with Ease, the National Diabetes Prevention Program and Powerful Tools for Caregivers are based on helping people learn and practice techniques that give them better control over their health.  Self-management programs don’t take the place of a doctor’s care; they give people strategies and action plans that complement that care.  After all, you probably only see your doctor a few hours per year.  You have to manage your condition on your own every day.”


Conditions like diabetes and heart disease require strict health routines, says Abramson, such as following medication schedules or monitoring blood sugar.  But the impact of these conditions often goes beyond clinical symptoms.  Stress, fatigue and feelings of isolation add to the burden of coping with illness.  Research consistently shows self-management education restores a sense of personal control while improving health outcomes.  “We know from more than 20 studies that people’s quality of life improves – along with their health behaviors – as a result of self-management education,” says Abramson.  “Our workshops get people involved in taking care of themselves using simple, proven approaches that have long-lasting impact.”


Facing a diagnosis can feel devastating.  “I was in shock,” Caroline Salmi of Green Bay recalls.  “Even though my mother had diabetes, when the doctor told me I had it, I was stunned.”  After Salmi moved to Green Bay, her new physician recommended Healthy Living with Diabetes, a self-management program provided by the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Brown County.  Although Salmi had worked with a diabetes educator before, the Healthy Living with Diabetes workshop was eye-opening.  “I learned so much,” she says. “My goal was to get moving, and I still make that a priority.”  Salmi also began keeping a food journal during the workshop.  She credits that habit with helping her stay on track controlling her blood sugar.


Self-management education isn’t a one-size fits all approach – which is one reason why Salmi felt it worked for her.  “I would tell people – you’ll get something different from the workshop.  It will depend on what resonates for you.” Betsy Abramson echoes that observation. “Healthy Living with Diabetes workshops are tailored to diabetics, while the Living Well workshops offers self-management skills of people diagnosed with any ongoing health issue – including diabetes, COPD, asthma, and many more,” she says.  “But it’s amazing how much people have in common when they are coping with a serious health issue.”   


Caroline Salmi agrees.  “Sometimes it’s nice just to be with people who know where you’re at,” she says.