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Upstate PT and educator serving as 2019 president of American Association of Diabetes Educators

Physical therapist and diabetes educator Karen Kemmis stands in the Upstate Rehabilitation space at the Institute of Human Performance.

A long-time Upstate University Hospital physical therapist is helping guide the future of care for people with diabetes as the 2019 president of the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE).

Karen Kemmis, PT, RN, DPT, MS, CDE, FAADE, has spent her time as president advancing the organization’s vision, which was created in 2018 to better reflect the work of its 13,000 members across the United States. (Diabetes educators often have one of two credentials – both of which include clinical contact hours and a certification exam.)

The AADE is a well-run, proactive and effective organization, said Kemmis, who has worked at Upstate for 23 years – much of that time as a certified diabetes educator. Her role as AADE president has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people across the country. The field of diabetes education – with the help of rapidly advancing technology – has come a long way in helping people live better lives, she said.

The organization, for instance, encourages medical providers to use the phrase “a person with diabetes,” rather than “diabetic,” to better see the whole person rather than just the disease.

“It’s a very challenging disease for the individual and people they are around,” Kemmis said. “We really have to be understanding of how challenging it is for a person day-to-day to manage diabetes and all of the aspects of it.”

Diabetes educators listen to the individual and consider all factors of a person’s life, which will help identify options for success, Kemmis said. Rather than conform the person to a set of recommendations that could improve their health, Kemmis describes doing a full assessment of the person’s health, lifestyle, goals and abilities.

Kemmis gave the example of a person with diabetes expecting to be told by his or her provider that he or she needs to walk 30 minutes a day for improved health. But what if it hurts to walk for that long? Or maybe he or she doesn’t have time because of a busy work or family schedule? Kemmis will encourage the person to walk for 10 minutes at a time whenever possible; the smaller blocks of time add up and can have the same positive results.

“I don’t tell people what they should do for exercise,” she said. “I look at their goals and priorities. We have to work with the individual and see what suits them. I tell them, let’s take on one thing at a time.

“It’s too hard to take it on all at once and nobody’s perfect.”

Kemmis’ expertise areas are a unique combination, even for Upstate, which offers care in myriad areas. Her original work, which continues today, is as a physical therapist with the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation. She also works as a diabetes educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center and as an adjunct professor in the physical therapy program. And last fall she completed a registered nursing degree. It took her two and a half years and she passed her boards in March. She’s not working as a nurse but the additional education has enhanced everything she does at Upstate.

“It has helped so much. More than I thought it would,” she said.

Joslin Medical Director Ruth S. Weinstock, MD, PhD, said Kemmis’ role at the helm of an important organization like AADE is wonderful for diabetes educators across the country, and for Upstate.

“Karen brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and energy to the field of diabetes education,” Weinstock said. “She has long helped lead innovations in diabetes education at Upstate and it’s gratifying to know she’s able to share her skills this year as president of AADE. We’re proud of her work and appreciate her efforts.”

Kemmis credits her husband and colleagues for helping her balance the responsibilities that come with leading a national organization.

“I would never be in a situation where I have this position without this job,” she said. “I’m grateful to the leadership at Joslin and at Upstate and in turn I hope I bring the leadership skills and information back to the work environment.”

As president of AADE, Kemmis, has to travel a fair amount. The organization has meetings in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Houston and Atlanta. Before she packs anything else for those trips though, she packs her running shoes.

“I pack based on what they fit in and everything else goes in around them,” she said laughing. A former marathon runner and enthusiastic proponent of exercise – both personally and professionally – Kemmis said she does some of her best thinking on her five- or six-mile morning runs, which lately include a lot of AADE vision work.

“It is going really fast,” she said of her time as president. “Now I’m just thinking, how can I make the most of the rest of this year?”

Caption: Karen Kemmis, PT, RN, DPT, MS, CDE, FAADE, pictured here in the Upstate Rehabilitation space at the Institute of Human Performance, has spent her time as president of AADE this year advancing the organization’s mission.