November 13, 2018

5 questions for a diabetes expert

Julie Schmittdiel, PhD, a research scientest at Kaiser Permanente, shares her path to research and what’s ahead.

Julie Schmittdiel, PhD, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, focuses 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.

Diabetes is an active area of study for Kaiser Permanente Research. Scientists across the organization have used Kaiser Permanente’s rich, comprehensive, longitudinal data to advance understanding of risk, improving patient outcomes, and translating research findings into policy and practice.

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 at MIT. As I was approaching graduation most of my classmates were exploring jobs on Wall Street in finance and investing.  I wanted to use my skills to help make the world a better place. I discovered that my interests in data and analysis could be put to work to solve challenging problems in health and health care.  I learned about the field of biostatistics and decided to get a master’s degree in that field at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. I went on to get a PhD and the rest is history!

What should people know about their own risk for 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 diabetes. 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 also some good news:  Healthy lifestyle choices can decrease risk, and our research has shown there are proven programs for Kaiser Permanente members such as wellness coaching that can help people lose weight and achieve their health goals.

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.

Schmittdiel and family at Oregon’s Crater Lake.

How has diabetes research changed over the decades? Where do you see it headed in the future?

Diabetes research has traditionally focused on laboratory research to understand the pathways by which individuals develop diabetes and to create new medication.  But we know that these discoveries don’t always make their way into patient care.  So recently there is more research interest in effective ways to spread and consistently provide best in class care across all different health systems. We recently received a T32 training program award from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to mentor and support postdoctoral fellows in these “translational” research careers. I think that shows that this type of work is the future for lowering diabetes incidences and improving diabetes outcomes.

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.