In the decade I have lived with Crohn’s Disease, I have steadfastly steered clear of support groups. It always seemed as though I were resigned to a couple of options in talking about my Crohn’s: 1) stick with my private medical appointment with only my parents and doctor, or 2) cautiously venture into the mysterious world of support groups. I exclusively favored the first option, and carefully built my community of friends with IBD a la patient advocacy and volunteering. And while that strategy worked for me, I only recently realized there’s another way.When Sami and I were invited to participate in the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters (“CHKD”) team’s demonstration of the group medical appointment (better known in the medical community as Drop-In Group Medical Appointments, “DIGMA”) at the ImproveCareNow Spring Learning Session, we were happy to help. We were admittedly unaware of how a DIGMA session worked; and arguably incredibly naïve about the feasibility and sustainability of a model that – at first glance – seemed to be the very kind of ooey-gooey-woe-is-me support group we had intentionally evaded.


Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters at the Spring 2014 Learning Session during their DIGMA demoChampioned by the passionate team at CHKD in Norfolk, Virginia, the DIGMA model has enjoyed strong support from clinicians and families alike. Dr. Marc Tsou was introduced to the idea in the late 90’s when a parent gave him an article about the group model structure, about which he says, “It seemed to make so much sense. I thought of how many times in the day I’d say the same medical information to several families. Say that information six times, how inefficient, then think about how much that group appointment concept makes sense.” Dr. Tsou saw an opportunity to meaningfully build on the clinic’s collaborative culture; “Elements were there, the right type of people and group. The doctors were the ones who said we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this, the time was right, it was almost fate.” Fueled by his fearless nurse, Terri, Dr. Tsou and the CHKD team set about bringing the DIGMA model to their IBD families.


The first step was reaching out to a variety of clinicians – such as dieticians and social workers – to ensure that the group visits did not just include patients & families, but also a group of diversified care providers. After sending out an email to potential clinician participants, positive responses began to rush in. “For the most part all responded and had someone to come and participate,” Terri says. “Everybody was super receptive to it, they’ve showed up at every one since.”


Annette Kulzer, a mom of three boys including 16-year-old Kolin who lives with IBD, has been instrumental in running the group model appointments. “As a parent,” she says. “It opens doors to meet people we would have not met. If we were in another setting, we wouldn’t hear those stories.” An early adopter and believer in the DIGMA model, Annette has regularly provided a parent’s perspective into how the group appointments run. For example, after a group appointment with female and male patients, Annette suggested having separate groups for each gender and for different ages ranges to encourage comfort and participation. Annette and Kolin emphasize the sincerity of Dr. Tsou’s malleability in running the group sessions, and they always appreciate the weight their feedback holds.


In addition to the accessibility to a variety of clinicians and retaining certain elements of the traditional solo medical appointment (e.g., a one-on-one physical exam), the DIGMA model had a surprising but welcome impact; it provided novel insight for patients, parents, and clinicians alike through storytelling. Annette remembers a teenage patient who recounted having great difficulty taking the bus to sporting events with her teammates, since she was worried she might urgently need to use the bathroom. The story challenged Annette to reconsider Kolin’s hesitation to ride with his teammates to a game, as she came to understand that her son – who rarely complained – shared a similar fear that had gone unspoken.


Jill, CHKD’s social worker agrees that sharing stories can be incredibly eye-opening, and says, “It’s very, very different when you can look into the face of another mom or another dad or another kid, and say I understand this. Okay here’s somebody like me, they’re doing alright.” Dr. Tsou adds, “There was one mom who broke down into tears, she got very emotional, you think gee these sessions no one will share very much, but really they’re sharing their souls and baring their deepest fears. People might be skeptical but it really happens, but that’s super gratifying, a bit surprising, and confirmed to us that we’re on to something and something that deserves the attention and energy to keep it going.” When asked about group session attendees who were unsure at first, Annette says, “We’ve had many patients and parents who come in resistant, but within 15 minutes they’ve had the Kool-Aid.”


The group session can also be liberating for patients, who perhaps fear that IBD will be an “albatross around their neck for the rest of their lives.” Kolin enthusiastically agrees, adding, “Telling people what you’re going through helps a lot.” Positive and on target support grows organically from the patient-driven and clinician-facilitated model, and Kolin says, “You’re going to get so much out of it.”


While the organizational burden was heavy at the beginning, the team has happily tackled logistical issues to provide this innovative practice to their patients. Dr. Tsou explains, “The group appointment allows for so much more sharing of feelings, fears, and that’s really what so many families want and need and it allows it in the framework of still providing care. We’ve all had to learn a little different way of doing it.” Terri adds, “No harm in trying something, and I would guarantee that if others tried this model, they wouldn’t go back, it really does impact patients and families.”


But the potential of the DIGMA model doesn’t stop there: the team sees practical applications to rural communities (i.e., being able to run a group session in a rural community to maximize patients who can be seen), and across medical specialties. Dr. Tsou says, “I think it’s going to be more mainstreamed. It is the way medicine will be practiced in the future, we’re at the leading edge of it, which is cool.” Kolin adds, “I really want it to spread. I was really skeptical of it at first, but I really do enjoy the DIGMA model.”


A group medical appointment is, at its core, a treasure chest for patients, families, and clinicians; the ability to offer a holistic, patient-centered, and team-approach to pediatric care is innovative and vital to the collaborative and transparent culture championed by ImproveCareNow. The passion, integrity, and dedication the CHKD team has for optimizing chronic illness care is not only evident, but most importantly completely contagious. “We’re all passionate about our patients,” says Terri. “We were born to do this, it’s been really wonderful. Everyone had the spirit, it was right for us.”



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