Behind the screen: Dr Joan St John, GP and virtual event host

General practitioner, author, and thought-leader, Dr Joan St John is also the host of the acclaimed event series 'Diabetes Health Matters', specially created for people of Black, African and Caribbean background living with diabetes. This article takes us through what joining a live episode feels like.

Dr Joan St John, physician, author and host of Diabetes Health Matters
Dr Joan St John, physician, author and host of Diabetes Health Matters

It’s 18:25 on a Thursday evening and the ritual is the same every time. On the screen, a timer is counting down the minutes before the start of the event. Familiar names and newcomers are asking permission to join the virtual room. The room fills up. Healthcare professionals, people living with diabetes and those who care for them, the majority of whom are of Black, African and Caribbean heritage.

When Dr Joan St John appears on screen and greets participants and guests, she’s just signalled the start of an hour and a half of insights, discussions and learning about what she calls “diabetes health”: a set of examples, tips and science-based advice to live better with or without diabetes.

Throughout the duration of the episode, Dr St John’s skills as an educator and host are plain to see. Tonight, she is interviewing a consultant eye surgeon, who is herself of Black heritage. Many acknowledge that it is uncommon to hear from a specialist outside of a consultation room. Dr St John and her guest are discussing dramatic real-life improvements in eye health for a person living with diabetes, and the change in diet that caused it. They are also answering questions and chatting with a very active audience. Many have their camera turned on and are taking notes. Questions and messages are jumping on the chat screen. Some evenings, over 120 people join the live discussion, which can extend well past the scheduled time of the event.

For Dr St John, there isn’t such a thing as a ‘hard to reach’ community. For over thirty years, she has provided mentorship and education through her medical practice in Brent, one of the most diverse boroughs in the UK, and has joined and designed initiatives to convey health messages outside of a medical setting to those who needed it most. Not so much to approach people in a different location but to travel in time; to reach them before diabetes appears or complications set in.

Diabetes Health Matters, which Dr St John launched in 2021 with Diabetes Africa, epitomises her vision for a people-centred, accessible educational programme, supported by creativity and passion. She felt we had to do something “because something could be done.” Her motto? “Each one teach one.” Joan’s remarkable consistency over a long career has been a testament to her personal faith in this vision.

In 2022, Diabetes Health Matters received an accolade from the Quality in Care Diabetes Programme and was highly commended in the category “Collaborative Diabetes Project of the Year”. Over the course of 10 episodes, the first season of the series tackled a range of topics, which formed the basis for articles, social media and video. One of the most memorable episodes focused on eating during the festive season.

Joan’s contribution to education through the Diabetes Health Matters series has been applauded by participants and guests. “The event series was on point: it is just what the Black community needed” wrote Grace Vanterpool MBE, Consultant Diabetes Nurse. “Some feedback I had from colleagues and friends was very inspirational. The fact that we had an excellent line up of health care professionals in diabetes brought together for the first time made them feel encouraged and inspired to improve diabetes care for black people.” Prof. Frank Chinegwundoh MBE, Consultant Urological Surgeon summed it up candidly: “Joan St John is a star.”

Dr St John was part of the first Diabetes UK Clinical champions cohort, a group of professionals benefitting from peer support and peer learning to increase their impact and influence change.

Health outcomes inequalities are now high on the agenda: people of Black African and Caribbean origin are up to three times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than people of white European origin. Dr St John has long raised awareness about diabetes through talks with local churches and communities. In 2016, with her colleague Salma Mehar, she created information resources on world foods, to help people of ethnic minority background with different food habits manage their blood sugar levels. She battled for three years to turn this material into a book.

It is hard to quantify the contribution of Dr Joan St John to diabetes awareness-raising, medical vocation and empowerment of individuals through education. Over her career in 1:1 settings, at practice and local levels and as a Diabetes UK Clinical Champion, with Diabetes Health Matters, her involvement in the Diabetes UK ‘Tackling inequality in diabetes’ challenge, and the distribution by the Norwest London Diabetes Transformation Programme of her book World Foods: A visual guide to African, Arabic, Caribbean and South Asian foods for diabetes & weight management, Dr Joan St John has touched the lives of well over 15,000 people.

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