Felicia Hill-Briggs, PhD, ABPP (left), with actress Bern Nadette Stanis and ADA’s Felicia Breedy at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
More than three decades after she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a 9-year-old, Felicia Hill-Briggs, PhD, ABPP, still recalls the old hospital room where she stayed for a week (and the mouse she found in her shoe beside the bed). It was 1975, and the doctors said her prognosis wasn’t good: They told her parents that their little girl’s life span would be shorter than most.
It didn’t help that the staff at the now-closed Baltimore hospital had no formal training in teaching diabetes management. One hospital employee told young Felicia that having diabetes meant she couldn’t have chocolate cake anymore. Finding an endocrinologist who treated children was nearly impossible, and she ended up going to a doctor who treated adults. Hill-Briggs says the poor diabetes education she got was telling not only of the area where she lived near downtown Baltimore but also of that era.
Yet it was Hill-Briggs’s experience then that helped her realize what she wanted to do in life: help people manage chronic disease, no matter the obstacles. Today, she is 45 and has returned to her hometown as an associate professor at both Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and its School of Public Health. As a behavioral scientist and clinical psychologist, Hill-Briggs works to bring quality care to people in underserved neighborhoods and to help them change how they manage their diabetes. Much of her research centers on making diabetes information more accessible, such as by tailoring it to the average reading levels of people in low-income communities. “The demographics of Baltimore [where African Americans make up more than 60 percent of the city’s population] put us right in the midst of really high-risk population groups,” she says. African Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to have type 2 diabetes.
Hill-Briggs encourages people to resist the idea that “they will inevitably develop complications” and to integrate managing diabetes into their daily lives. “It’s not a motivational problem or a lack of interest” that interferes with people’s self-care, she says. “It’s that life gets in the way.” One of her current studies, Project DECIDE (Decision-making Education for Choices in Diabetes Everyday), tests workable solutions to diabetes management, in the context of all the other stresses and obligations people face.
As a volunteer, Hill-Briggs contributes her expertise on both the national and local levels. She recently chaired the American Diabetes Association’s Council on Behavioral Medicine and Psychology, and served on its Grant Review Committee, helping select research projects for ADA funding. She has led diabetes workshops in Baltimore area churches, and worked with a city middle school to conduct a diabetes prevention and health awareness class taught by Hopkins professionals whom she recruited.
Although she works mainly with people who have type 2 diabetes, Hill-Briggs often draws from her own experiences with type 1. She motivates people to take control of their diabetes by monitoring their blood glucose, which she says gives a feeling of control and even freedom. “A lot of things that are really fantastic tools are also the things that remind people they have diabetes all the time,” Hill-Briggs concedes. Yet she wants them to view that as a good thing: “The fact that it’s manageable is empowering,” she says. It’s an attitude she carries into her work, volunteering, and everyday life.