Diabetes expert shares her path to research and what’s ahead as November marks diabetes awareness month
By Jon Weiner
Julie Schmittdiel, PhD, focuses her research on diabetes care and prevention, hoping to understand the best ways to use health care interventions at the systems level to improve patient care. She serves as the director of the Health Delivery Systems Center for Diabetes Translational Research, a national partnership collaborating to facilitate diabetes research and distribute it widely.
Q: If you had to think back, is there a single moment in your life that sparked your interest in what you’re doing now?
I was a math major as an undergraduate at MIT, and when I was a senior it seemed like most of the opportunities for people with my background were Wall Street-type jobs in finance and investing. I really wanted to figure out a way to apply my interest in numbers and data analysis to something that could hopefully make the world a better place and wondered if there was a way to use math to tackle how to improve health and health care. It turned out there was; I learned about the field of biostatistics and decided to a get a master’s degree in that field. I came to UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health as a grad student, and the rest is history!
Q: What should people know about their health, in your area of expertise, that you don’t think they know?
I think people should be more aware of their risk of developing diabetes. People often aren’t aware of how their weight, age, race and ethnicity, and blood sugar levels can increase their chances of developing the disease. Family and household factors are important too; living with a spouse who has diabetes increases your risk of developing diabetes as well. But there’s good news that I think people aren’t always aware of: healthy lifestyle choices can decrease risk, and our research has shown that there are proven programs for Kaiser Permanente members like wellness coaching that can help people lose weight and achieve their health goals.
Q: What kind of research are you doing and why do you think it’s important?
My research focuses on pragmatic approaches to improving diabetes care and prevention. For example, I’m currently studying how mail-order pharmacy use by patients can help improve medication adherence and diabetes-related outcomes. I think it’s important to understand how practical interventions at the health care system level can support better outcomes for patients.
Q: How has diabetes research changed over the decades? Where do you see it headed in the future?
Diabetes research has traditionally focused on bench science to understand molecular pathways and develop new medications. I’ve seen much more interest in translational research to help move findings about effective interventions into wider use across U.S. health care systems and populations. We recently received a T32 training program award from NIH to mentor and support postdoctoral fellows in translational research careers. I think that shows that this type of work is the future for lowering diabetes incidence and improving diabetes outcomes.
Q: In your free time, what do you like to do?
I love to read! My book group just celebrated its 20th anniversary and I’m proud that we’ve stuck with it all these years. I also enjoy traveling with my family, and spending time taking care of our menagerie: a cat and five chickens.
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