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Diabetes Support in Korea

When Jeongkwan (Brian) Lee of the i-SENS planning division introduced me to Cheol Jean, Brian called him “the Korean David Mendosa.” Brian was being too generous to me.

Both of us have written about diabetes for years and have organized diabetes support groups. But Cheol Jean, whose business cards reads as Charlie Jean to make it easier for Westerners, has written four books about diabetes — twice as many as I have — and founded and leads a much larger diabetes support group.

Charlie Jean and I Meet

Brian and I arrived in Busan, Korea, on Sunday evening on the bullet train from Seoul. We are here to participate in the Eighth International Congress of the International Diabetes Federation’s Western Pacific Region at the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO).

I will be covering the IDF meeting for HealthCentral from Monday through Wednesday. About 3,000 people are here for the meeting in Busan, mainly from Korea, Japan, Canada, and Australia.

I am old enough to have remembered this now vibrant city from the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter. In August and September 1950 North Korean forces drove back the UN Command, which included thousands of American troops, and South Korean forces — together with millions of refugees — to the extreme southeast corner of the country around the port of Pusan.

How this country has changed in 60 years! Pusan, with its new name Busan, teams with new skyscraper hotels in the Haeundae beach district around BEXCO. I am staying on the 31st floor of the Hanwha Resort hotel from where I can look up to buildings at least twice as high. In facilities and size the convention hall rivals those in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Orlando, and Houston, where I have reported on other diabetes conventions for HealthCentral during the past five years.

Over tea in the BEXCO Starbucks, Brian brought Charlie Jean and me together for the first time. Charlie is a modest man. His business card identifies him — in small print — as the CEO of Argos Publishers Inc., a book publishing company in Seoul.

But Charlie has had type 1 diabetes for more than 30 years. As a writer as well as a publisher, he has also written four books about diabetes that are currently in print. One of them will soon appear in an English translation.

Brian from i-SENS was our interpreter. And when he told me that Charlie also founded and leads a diabetes support group, I realized why he had compared us. A few years ago I started a small support group of people committed to controlling their diabetes.

Charlie did likewise. But with some major differences.

Unlike my group, which includes only a few people in Boulder, where I live, Charlie’s group includes more than 3,000 members in Korea and has been active for the past four years. While they do meet in person, particularly at an annual camp dedicated to improving their self-management, they communicate mostly on the Web.

The structure of that group is more formal. While the group that meets in my apartment includes only people who are determined to control their diabetes — unlike most groups in my experience where they are content to do what their doctors suggest — Charlie has each prospective new member to farther. They have to address five questions:

1. The first question is “Do you or a member of your family have diabetes?” If not, they need to provide a good reason to join. The goal here is to exclude people who have a commercial agenda.

2. “How do you know about this group?”

3. “What insulin are you using?” The group is limited to people who inject insulin, whether or not they have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

4. Then, they need to respond to about 15 personal questions on the group’s website. While the questions are on-line, the answers are private except as necessary for membership review.

The questions are basic ones like “When were you diagnosed?” “What difficulty do you have in managing your diabetes, like depression, hunger, problems with your family?” “How many times a day do you test and how much insulin do you inject?”

5. Finally, prospective members agree to write on the shared website only about legitimate scientific research and their personal experiences. They agree not to pitch any commercial product.

These questions make a lot of sense to me, particularly as the group that I helped start plans to grow in order to reach more people in the area where we live. Strangely, I had never before considered using a website for the group to exchange information. That’s strange because I have worked with computers for almost 30 years now, including six years managing a computer store and selling computers and information systems. We do exchange some information by email, but maybe we can move further into the computer age.

Maybe you can too. Maybe you can share what you know about diabetes with your friends and neighbors. Maybe you will find, as I have, that by teaching others about how to control their diabetes you will control your own life much more satisfactorily.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Eric at

    No problem Mr. Mendosa, thanks anyway! I did get into more research of their health care system and went in depth with the details on the rise of their economy. Definitely contributed to everything you had mentioned, also found out that their preventive health care are a bit on the weak side. Well, thanks for reading my comment and best regards.

  • Eric at

    Hi David Mendosa, Ive been reading some of your article here and on health central, and find that what you said about “koreans are thinner, but diabete rates are almost same as US people” very interesting. I am student doing some researches on any diabetic related topic.. Through your articles, I learn that the result is caused by stress related from work and the use of alcohol. Please excuse my grammar and health care is definitely not my strongest subject, but I would like to know if there are links or other articles more regarding to this problem? Thank you very much !

    • David Mendosa at

      Dear Eric,

      You are almost certainly right that stress and alcohol are the root cause of the high rate of diabetes among Koreans. But I can’t think of any other studies in English that would bear on this subject. Sorry.

      Best regards,