‘We just have to keep them alive’: Transitioning youth with type 1 diabetes


“No one has asked young people what they want,” said Tabitha Randell, MBChB, an endocrinologist with Nottingham (England) University Hospitals NHS Trust, who specializes in treating teenagers with type 1 diabetes as they transition to adult care.

Dr. Randell, who has set up a very successful specialist service in her hospital for such patients, said: “We consistently have the best, or the second best, outcomes in this country for our diabetes patients.” She believes this is one of the most important issues in modern endocrinology today.

Dr, Grazia Aleppo, division of endocrinology, at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Dr, Grazia Aleppo

Speaking at the Diabetes Professional Care conference in London at the end of 2021, and sharing her thoughts afterward with this news organization, she noted that in general there are “virtually no published outcomes” on how best to transition a patient with type 1 diabetes from pediatric to adult care.

“If you actually get them to transition – because some just drop out and disengage and there’s nothing you can do – none of them get lost. Some of them disengage in the adult clinic, but if you’re in the young diabetes service [in England] the rules are that if you miss a diabetes appointment you do not get discharged, as compared with the adult clinic, where if you miss an appointment, you are discharged.”

In the young diabetes clinic, doctors will “carry on trying to contact you, and get you back,” she explained. “And the patients do eventually come back in – it might be a year or 2, but they do come back. We’ve just got to keep them alive in the meantime!”

This issue needs tackling all over the world. Dr. Randell said she’s not aware of any one country – although there may be “pockets” of good care within a given country – that is doing this perfectly.

Across the pond, Grazia Aleppo, MD, division of endocrinology at Northwestern University, Chicago, agreed that transitioning pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes to adult care presents “unique challenges.”

Challenges when transitioning from pediatric to adult care

During childhood, type 1 diabetes management is largely supervised by patients’ parents and members of the pediatric diabetes care team, which may include diabetes educators, psychologists, or social workers, as well as pediatric endocrinologists.

When the patient with type 1 diabetes becomes a young adult and takes over management of their own health, Dr. Aleppo said, the care team may diminish along with the time spent in provider visits.

The adult endocrinology setting focuses more on self-management and autonomous functioning of the individual with diabetes.

Adult appointments are typically shorter, and the patient is usually expected to follow doctors’ suggestions independently, she noted. They are also expected to manage the practical aspects of their diabetes care, including prescriptions, diabetes supplies, laboratory tests, scheduling, and keeping appointments.

At the same time that the emerging adult needs to start asserting independence over their health care, they will also be going through a myriad of other important lifestyle changes, such as attending college, living on their own for the first time, and starting a career.

“With these fundamental differences and challenges, competing priorities, such as college, work and relationships, medical care may become of secondary importance and patients may become disengaged,” Dr. Aleppo explained.

As Dr. Randell has said, loss to follow-up is a big problem with this patient population, with disengagement from specialist services and worsening A1c across the transition, Dr. Aleppo noted. This makes addressing these patients’ specific needs extremely important.


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