Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute Marks 40 Years of Innovation

Since its creation in 1981, the clinic has led the way in research, treatment, education, outreach

Four children lower a time capsule into the ground.

Photo from the dedication ceremony for Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute. Four young diabetes patients, including Zach Leigh shown third from the left, lower a time capsule into the ground.

Since its creation in 1981, the clinic has led the way in research, treatment, education, outreach

When Zach Leigh helped lower a time capsule full of syringes, urine strips, paper logbooks and other medical materials into the ground in front of the newly completed Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute, the actions of the then 9-year-old with type 1 diabetes represented the hope for a future when managing and treating the disease would be far easier.

Forty years later, Leigh, who lives in Leucadia, is now participating in a clinical trial at Scripps Whittier testing a “closed loop” system that uses a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device and an insulin pump to automatically track blood sugar and deliver treatments when needed.

“As we mark the 40th anniversary in 2021 of the creation of Scripps Whittier in 1981, we are extremely proud of the amazing strides we have made here in clinical research, treatment, education, early intervention and outreach to high-risk, underserved communities,” said Scripps Whittier Corporate Vice President Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD. “And we look forward to many more decades of to come.

“But even with all of these accomplishments, diabetes remains a challenging and widespread health concern for far too many people,” she said. “We still haven’t found a cure for it, and the diabetes epidemic continues to grow due to an aging population, rising obesity, poor physical fitness and other factors.”

Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when the body lacks insulin and can’t properly regulate the level of sugar in blood. When poorly managed, diabetes can cause serious health issues such as heart disease, vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage and foot problems.

In the United States, 34.2 million people have diabetes, which is more than 10% of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 88 million people have prediabetes. A 2018 study by CDC researchers estimated that the number of American adults diagnosed with diabetes will reach 60.6 million, or 18% of the population, by 2060.

Diabetes care is deeply embedded in the history of Scripps Health. In 1924, Ellen Browning Scripps founded the Scripps Metabolic Clinic in La Jolla next door to the original Scripps Memorial Hospital. Just two years earlier, the discovery of insulin had sparked a revolution in the treatment of diabetes, commonly called metabolic disease at the time, which had previously been hopelessly untreatable and deadly in most cases.

Nearly 60 years later, Scripps used a $5 million donation from philanthropist Paul Whittier and his wife, Lucy, to establish the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute on the Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla campus off Genesee Avenue.

“For four decades, people throughout the San Diego region have benefited from having access to the best in diabetes care and resources through Scripps Whittier,” said John Engle, Scripps corporate senior vice president, chief development officer and senior executive of marketing and communications. “The generous gift from the Whittiers that made the institute possible is a perfect example of the deep and lasting legacy of philanthropy in our community.”

In more recent years, Scripps Whittier has led the way in developing programs to provide care for people in high-risk, underserved communities through Project Dulce, which uses nurses, dieticians and specially trained educators known as “promotoras” to counsel diabetes patients while educating them to support others with diabetes within their own cultural groups. Diabetes management classes have been adapted for Hispanic, African American, Filipino and Vietnamese populations, and are taught in the patients’ native languages.

In research, the institute has conducted leading edge studies testing the use of wireless CGM devices in hospitalized patients in hopes of better managing their diabetes during their admission by making blood sugar a fifth vital sign tracked by clinicians alongside temperature, pulse, blood pressure and respiration.

Early during the coronavirus pandemic, Scripps Whittier staff used the lessons learned from their CGM research to track blood sugar in hospitalized COVID-19 patients through a special waiver from the Food and Drug Administration. The effort helps to reduce the number of times nurses need to don special personal protective equipment to go into a patient’s room for more conventional finger pricks. In August, the institute received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to greatly expand its research into the use of CGM in hospitals.

Other research by Scripps Whittier has shown that health-related text messages sent every day for six months to low-income Hispanics with type 2 diabetes helped produce blood sugar level improvements that equaled those resulting from some glucose-lowering medications. The Dulce Digital clinical trial was the first randomized controlled study to look at the use of text messages to help underserved Hispanics better self-manage their diabetes through glycemic control.

Zach Leigh says he is excited to be part of the latest research efforts at Scripps Whittier four decades after he helped usher in a new era of diabetes care in San Diego County.

“I think it’s amazing that I have access to the best doctors and novel technology right here at Scripps,” he said.

Whittier Diabetes Institute, by the numbers in 2020:

  • 6,600: Patient consultations
  • 2,839: Visits made by Project Dulce care managers
  • 987: Visits for women enrolled in the diabetes in pregnancy program
  • 266: Hospitalized patients followed with CGM, including 30% with COVID-19
  • 142: People enrolled in the diabetes prevention program
  • 17: Active studies with 759 participants
  • $4 million: Funding awarded for 6 new research projects

Learn more about Scripps Health, a nonprofit integrated health system in San Diego, Calif.

Media Contact

Keith Darce

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