Teaming up: How to play an active role in your health care if you have diabetes to minimize your heart risk

Doctor smiling with young couple

Playing an active role in your own health care is important for anyone. For people with diabetes, it’s imperative.

“Diabetes is more complicated than most chronic diseases,” says Robert Eckel, M.D., president-elect of the American Diabetes Association and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is also a past-president of the American Heart Association.

“Because of their diabetes, we also have to wonder: Does the patient have heart disease? Do we need to do more tests?”

This is especially important, he said, because the risk of people with diabetes developing cardiovascular disease is two times higher than for those without the disease. In almost a half-century as an endocrinologist, those patients with both diabetes and cardiovascular disease have been Eckel’s focus.

As someone who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 5 years old, Eckel’s compassion runs deep. He knows firsthand that dealing with the disease can be overwhelming, especially if patients feel like they’re not a part of the decision making when it comes to their diabetes care team.

“We want patients to leave an office visit with an understanding of the disease and what steps we’re going to take with lifestyle and medications,” Eckel said.

Eckel uses what he calls a “three-minute lifestyle intervention.”
  • How many servings of fruits and vegetables do you have a day?
  • How many times a week do you eat fish?
  • What’s your activity platform?
  • How much exercise do you get?
  • What are your barriers?
  • Do you read nutrition labels?”

As active participants in their own care, patients should be able to answer those questions. And, he encourages patients to ask questions freely.

“It is critical to ask questions,” said Jacqueline Alikhaani, a Know Diabetes by Heart Ambassador. Know Diabetes by Heart is a collaboration between the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association aimed at reducing cardiovascular risk among people with type 2 diabetes. “There are no stupid questions about what you need to know.”

Alikhaani has a congenital heart disease and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes almost three years ago. She stresses the importance of patients being an integral part of their health care team—especially because diabetes is a 24/7 disease and managing it takes work.

“You really have to be proactive. You are the CEO of your health care,” Alikhaani said.

She and Eckel offer these suggestions:

Prepare for your visit. Ask questions. Write them down ahead of time if you need to.

Be honest. Have candid conversations about your daily habits and lifestyle. This will help you work with your healthcare team to implement changes that are realistic for you.

Take notes. Make note of consistent symptoms, questions about your medications, and any changes in your lifestyle. These can be helpful for your next check-up. Also, take notes during your clinic visits. This can help you remember things, particularly if there are changes in your care plan.