Apologies for the radio silence of late. I meant to write this post months ago, but somehow never quite managed to grab the time for it. Initially I had planned several posts each detailing different events and experiences, all fascinating and full of wit and laugh out loud anecdote, but eventually they all began to coalesce around a single theme of confused grumpiness, so that’s what you are getting instead.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a number of diabetes events in 2019. It’s always an honour and a privilege to receive an invitation, and in no way do I want this post to read as my being in any way ungrateful, or my taking those invites for granted. Because I absolutely do not. I am fully aware of my rare position of being offered an invite - a seat at the table - and it is not something I take lightly. At all.
Sometimes I was invited by device manufacturers, other times by pharmaceutical companies, or diabetes charities, or healthcare professionals and researchers. Sometimes I was invited to speak, other times I was invited to listen, or perhaps to participate in discussion and conversation on some diabetes-related topic or other. My travel (and accommodation if needed) was paid for by the inviting organisation, and the events are always fascinating with much for me to learn and take away. Sometimes they were in the UK, but my travel and attendance at EASD in Barcelona formed part of my year - a first for me, and every bit as enormous, interesting and ever-so-slightly overwhelming as I had imagined it might be. Except perhaps more so. (EASD is the European mega-conference for those working in the field of diabetes, it is mindbogglingly big).
Almost without exception my attendance at events is surrounded by enthusiastic comments about the importance of hearing the ‘authentic voice’, the lived experience; the punter’s-eye viewpoint. Having people with diabetes at these events seems broadly welcomed and encouraged by most healthcare professionals. Many say how important it is. How vital to hear from and connect to people who live with Diabetes day to day, to hear their experiences, and to listen to their stories. When I’ve been asked to speak, the feedback forms have been overwhelmingly positive, almost to the point of embarrassment. Clinicians anonymously feeding back that they are intending to change their clinical practice because of the experiences and thoughts they have heard from people living with diabetes. “Best talk of the day”, “So important”, “Much to take away from this”... the welcome could not be warmer.
When I was appointed to be one of the ‘lay’ members of the NICE Guideline Development Group for T1 in Adults, we had training and support to help us unpick the clinical data that we would be asked to review. It was made very clear from the outset that our voices and contributions, though entirely without medical qualification, were felt to be just as important as anyone else’s on the panel. We were actively encouraged to speak up, and to ask questions - even if we suspected everyone else probably knew the answer... partly because sometimes they didn’t, and would be very glad we had asked for an acronym to be spelled out or some terminology or other explained. We were told how important our participation was felt to be. And to their huge credit, the clinicians and researchers around the table never once gave me the impression that they wished I would shut up, no matter how much they may have been thinking it privately.
Increasingly it seems research projects and clinical trials are being put together with PPI inbuilt from the ground up . (PPI being ‘patient and public involvement’ - are we allowed to say ‘patient’ this week?). It appears that in some cases, perhaps even many or most cases, funding for research and interventions depends upon clinicians and researchers ensuring that the ‘patient and public’ voice is represented, and that there are non-medical people involved in the review, and design of studies and materials.
And I think all of this is a good thing. Nothing about us without us.
From the very first ‘big thing’ I went to (Diabetes UK Professional Conference if I remember rightly), it was clear from the outset that we PWD didn’t belong.
“It’s the regulations I’m afraid...” “Nothing we can do...”
My first visit to the annual DUK professional conference involved me being ‘co-opted’ as a blogger onto the Press Team. As a person with diabetes I was not allowed to be there. I was not welcome.
Mostly this is because of fearsome pharma regulations, which forbid the advertising of almost all pharmaceuticals directly to the general public (hay fever and headache tablets etc aside). Significant fines and penalties hang like a Sword of Damocles above the quivering pharma multinationals who cower beneath it. If you happen to live with T1 diabetes and also be a journalist... or work for a pharmaceutical company... or a diabetes charity... or a device manufacturer... you appear to be immune to the devastating potential impact of walking past a poster for a new T2 medication. But as a mere PWD mortal? Perish the thought.
And this strikes me as a little odd. Because. The internet.
In a world in which I can look up published research papers on Pubmed, or any number of research outlets, I wonder how damaging it really is for me to see those research results presented and explained, along with lots of context and clarification at a conference. I wonder how much difference there is between reading a article by a journalist about a new medication, thinking it sounds promising, and then asking your clinic about it, versus seeing a poster in an exhibition hall as you walk through to get a coffee. At EASD, while I could attend sessions, there were large ‘no entry’ posters at the entrance to the exhibition hall forbidding my entry.
And these regulations are clearly terrifying. At one event I attended last year as a guest speaker, to give my experience and thoughts on diabetes appointments (a blog I really must get around to writing) I was not even allowed to go and choose my own lunch. Some exhibitors, getting wind of my attendance had made the organisers agree *in writing* that I would be chaperoned from the moment I arrived in my car. I had to wait in the reception area, and be taken to a special side room, accompanied at all times. Then someone went to choose a few things for my lunch (because the exhibitors were in the same space as the food). And when I had finished my talk, I was accompanied straight back to my car and I drove away. No time to chat to clinicians. No way to hear anything else. This sounds comedically extreme (and in fact it was) but I’ve heard from others who have been asked to speak and who have been similarly chaperoned, lest their eyes should wander or they stumble upon a discarded leaflet for PintoDactoTrophomax10 and expire from the shock.
I am sure the regulations were put in place for very good reasons (witness the bother we are currently in, with antibiotics after overuse driven in part by people going to their GP and demanding them for a viral infection). But really? I genuinely don’t believe they are fit for purpose any more.
How often do we see a news story about some new drug or therapy that has been deemed insufficiently effective for widespread use (or too expensive... or both). And parents and supporters are campaigning for access for little Johnny, or attempting to fly overseas to acquire the treatment there.
The law is an ass, so they say. And this pharma law seems doubly so. It is a hindrance. And it’s not doing the job it is meant to do.
But the thing that I find most troubling about this particular regulation in terms of diabetes, and my own experience of self management is the subtext of it.
Essentially, in a sense you could read it as saying, “You are unqualified. You are not trusted. You cannot make this decision. You are incapable of understanding the complexities of the issues involved. Keep quiet and do as you are told.” I know it isn’t actually saying that. But I think also... in some ways, it is.
To their credit, Diabetes UK have tried to improve access for PWD to new research and created the ‘Insider Day’ - a one-day version of their Professional Conference specifically aimed at people with diabetes, where some of the content from the main conference can be shared in a way that satisfies the rules. But does this (as great as it is) create a two tier ‘dumbing down’ structure? A watering down to make things more palatable and easier to digest? Conference Lite.
The other slightly odd thing about getting some of these invites, particularly to the larger events, and where I have been asked to speak, is that some HCPs really wish we PWD weren’t there and would go away and leave them alone. Anonymous feedback forms (you do realise we get those to read afterwards, right?) which are completed with the apparent intention of reflecting this opinion back to organising committees... are also read by the people that give the talks. Some HCPs have suggested in the clearest possible terms that they thought my contribution added absolutely no value at all to the event, and they would much prefer it if I had not been invited to witter on inanely at them. I am not quoting, you understand... but the sentiment was pretty much there.
I completely understand the opinion of some HCPs that they would prefer their ‘own space’, and sometimes I see exactly the same wish expressed by people with diabetes about meetings or online spaces. Some people’s preference is to have a place where they can be, and share, and exchange thoughts with just their peers present. With no need to accommodate the sensibilities of others. I can see that sometimes you just want to have natural (unguarded?) interactions with your own. To kick back and not have to worry about minding your Ps and Qs lest someone gets the hump. Even the most supportive and passionate advocates of PWD involvement have been known to express this desire.
So I do understand it. But also I genuinely value an open interchange between n=1 lived experience and profound clinical and specialist expertise. I think that while there is a desire for PWD involvement in the conversation, being chaperoned, excluded, not trusted, and made to feel uncomfortable isn’t very helpful for anyone. I think we have much to learn from each other. I’ve seen some conference presentations that have made my head spin with the complexity of it. I’ve not understood all of it by any means, but when something is well presented, even if way above my understanding, I absorb the main thrust of the content, and find I remember it and can apply some of the complex physiology (or whatever) to my lived experience.
I also think being in a mixed environment helps to create and maintain respect (though sometimes this seems spectacularly absent in online spaces). I think sharing spaces can create empathy and understanding. It’s not like we are on ‘different sides’ right? Clinicians, researchers and industry want us to have better outcomes, and that’s exactly what we want too.
I do believe it is possible for both clinicians and PWD to express their authentic, honest experiences, and also maintain respect, and behave with kindness and courtesy.
I look forward to a time when the regulations change, and involvement (or exclusion) is done more openly and intentionally, not under the veil of what seems to me to be a rather outdated rule book.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.