Q&A: Dr. Lisa Sumlin

10.19.17

In the battle against chronic disease, there are many stakeholders: patients, families and doctors. While a doctor might not have personal experience with the disease, they work daily with chronic disease patients and have unique perspectives on chronic diseases and the people who are affected. The Chronic Disease Coalition recently teamed up with Dr. Lisa Sumlin, professor at University of Texas at Austin and board member and the Chief Health Officer for Community Coalition for Health, to talk about the issues many chronic disease patients face.

How did you end up in this field? What piqued your interest?

When I started as a registered nurse on a medical surgical unit, it was not uncommon for me to have six or seven patients on the evening shift with at least four or five of these patients admitted for complications due to diabetes. I noticed many of these patients with diabetes were African American or Hispanic. I then began to ask why. Why are so many people suffering from diabetes complications – uncontrolled diabetes leading to kidney failure, amputations or blindness? These patients were often repeat visitors. Additionally, I have many family members with diabetes.

As I continued to work on the medical surgical unit, my interest in diabetes grew, along with my desire to do more for those patients. I returned to school at The University of Texas at Austin for my master’s degree in nursing focusing on diabetes management as a board-certified Adult Clinical Nurse Specialist (ACNS-BC).

I continue to practice – creating ways to help more people. As a Ph.D. researcher, I seek out new methods to reduce the impact of diabetes. I teach undergraduate- and graduate-level nursing students. I am a board member and the Chief Health Officer for a non-profit organization, Community Coalition for Health (C2H), whose mission is to help people win the fight against diabetes and other chronic diseases in addition to addressing health disparities within the Central Texas region. I am also the CEO for EPaD Inc., (Empowering People against Diabetes Inc.). EPaD Inc. seeks to reduce the impact of diabetes and chronic diseases through educational program development, consulting, smart assistant apps, journal articles and more.

What have you seen change in your field in the last decade?

Over the last decade I have seen the progression of technological advances in diabetes treatment (continuous glucose monitors, etc.) but I have also witnessed the number of people with diabetes continue to grow. With this growth, I see people desiring actionable insight and knowledge to beat diabetes and reduce their suffering.

What role does race and gender play in terms of who is likely to suffer from chronic disease?

Two ethnic groups that are highly impacted by chronic illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol) are African Americans and Hispanics. Males tend to be more impacted; however, females follow closely behind them, largely due to obesity. Many factors lead to this higher rate of chronic illnesses, among them are obesity, decreased education and income levels. There is also less access to health care within these populations. These factors play a major role in the ability to prioritize their health.

What small lifestyle changes can people make to live a healthier and more fulfilling life?

What I tell patients, family and friends (anyone within shouting distance!) is to first learn what carbohydrates are, then cut back on this food group a little bit at a time. Your body needs carbs to function. Making small changes can have a huge positive impact enabling all of us to live healthier lives while controlling chronic illnesses.

What are some resources that I can use to help me understand my disease?

Two voice apps for the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, “Dr. Lisa’s Diabetes Trivia” and “Diabetes Tips,” can be a helpful start. C2H, a partner with the American Diabetes Association, conducts classes within the Central Texas Region (info@c2h.us). Always consult your primary care physician for information and educational opportunities that may be available. The key to winning the fight against diabetes is becoming more knowledgeable about the disease and then practicing what you learn.

What inspires you?

My God has given me a deep passion to help those with diabetes. What continues to inspire me are those moments when I am speaking with someone about their disease(s) and I see their ”light bulb” expression indicating they ”get it”! They now believe they can live better and suffer less. They really have a better understanding of their disease and how to manage their illness(es). My husband and daughters are always giving me words of encouragement like, “Mom, you help a lot of people” and “You got this!” Their confidence in me is my personal inspiration.

What is the most frequently asked question or concern from patients with diabetes or other chronic conditions?

Do I have to eat foods I do not like to get my disease (diabetes, high blood pressure) under control? And the answer is no. You just have to learn how to decrease and balance the foods that you currently eat.  You should never focus on what you may give up! Focus on all that you have to gain!