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New honors seminar dives into complex topic of diabetes

Students learn the basics of diabetes and discuss the ethical dilemmas regarding management, medical accessibility and stigma.
Image by Shalom Berhane
Dr. Kylee Funk teaches The Diabetes Experience. Photo courtesy of Funk and taken by Gerald Vincent on March 30, 2015.

This semester, the University of Minnesota Honors Program began offering a new honors seminar course called The Diabetes Experience, focused on developing more empathy for diabetics and discussing ethical concerns in diabetes management.

The course was developed to teach undergraduate students the basic fundamentals of diabetes, understand the daily impact diabetes has on patients and discuss ethical questions regarding management, medical accessibility and stigma, said Dr. Kylee Funk, the course’s instructor and associate professor at the College of Pharmacy.

“They’re getting the skills of ‘how do we empathize?’ and ‘how do we understand where this is coming from?” Funk said.

The course is primarily held asynchronously online, with three synchronous zoom meetings throughout the semester, Funk said. The students engage in online discussions at least three times a week, watch videos and read articles for the class.

“I have enjoyed being part of the students’ discussions and seeing that things are clicking for them and they are finding these topics important,” Funk said. “I mean, that’s what keeps me interested, keeps me going.”

Involving empathy

Funk developed the honors course for any honors student to take, not just students interested in going into the medical field.

“I think it can be beneficial for students of different backgrounds with different interests for their future,” Funk said.

Honors program seminars are unique and open to any honors students without prerequisite work, said Ian Ringgenberg, associate director for curriculum and outreach for the honors program. All honors students must take at least one honors seminar.

“We really try to make it something that people from all different disciplines can hop into,” Ringgenberg said. “The Diabetes Experience isn’t just for pre-med students.”

During the course, students experience a simulation of Type 1 diabetes, Funk said. The simulation consists of picking a random blood sugar number from a hat and calculating insulin doses based on the blood sugar number and the number of carbohydrates in their meal.

“They are just getting a little bit of a feel for how complex this is,” Funk said.

Second-year journalism student Grace Henrie, while not enrolled in the course, said she thought the course was a great opportunity for people to learn more about the disease that millions of people, including herself, have to manage.

“If we educate people more on what it’s really like to have diabetes and the issues that come with not having accessibility to insulin, we might affect more change,” Henrie said.

Henrie said her experience as a Type 1 diabetic at a big university campus has been adequate so far. She said her diabetes is well managed, but someone who was recently diagnosed or is struggling with burnout might have a more difficult time, especially if they have professors with strict attendance policies.

“Sometimes when you’re having a low blood sugar, you feel like you’re dying,” Henrie said. “You can’t pick yourself up and go to class.”

Managing diabetes

As of October 2022, 37.3 million Americans had diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2). In Minnesota, about 390,000 adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Insulin is an important hormone the body produces to convert food into energy. Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body either cannot create insulin or does not use insulin well, leading to high blood sugar, according to the CDC.

Henrie said she thought it was good that issues in diabetes management, like insulin cost, are being covered in the new course.

“I think it 100% needs to be taught,” Henrie said. “I am in a constant state of, ;why the hell is insulin so expensive?’”

The students in the course go through a second simulation exploring the complexities of insurance and issues related to cost of insulin and other diabetic supplies, Funk said. When someone is a type one diabetic, they need to take insulin every day. Diabetics without insurance or with poor coverage can pay an average of $1,000 per month on insulin alone.

“We talk about disparities, we talk about navigating the healthcare system,” Funk said.

Learning new things through seminar

Any faculty member can propose an honors seminar and the requests must be submitted before the Nov. 1 deadline to be considered for the next academic year, Ringgenberg said. He said the honors program typically offers 40 seminars per year, most of which are returning courses.

“We have faculty from the law school and the med school and adjuncts who can do this every year, and that’s just part of their arrangement with the department,” Ringgenberg said.

While this is only her first semester teaching this particular course, Funk said she has enjoyed it and is optimistic about teaching it again in the future.

Henrie encourages non-medical students to consider taking the course if it is offered in future semesters.

“It can make you more empathetic and put you in someone else’s shoes, which I always think is a great thing to do,” Henrie said.

Further information on insulin access in Minnesota and Minnesota’s insulin safety net program can be found on the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy website. Information on the University’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) can be found on the DRC’s website.

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