Jeff Hitchcock and his website, Children with Diabetes, have gone through some significant changes recently. These changes reflect how growth and success brings its own set of challenges, and also reflect some larger changes taking place in how diabetes functions as a business.
“Change means finding new ways of doing things,” says Hitchcock, who was inspired in 1995 to start his website because of his daughter Marissa’s diagnosis with type 1 diabetes at age 2. “We are changing, and we will continue to change, in order to stay current with what is happening in diabetes care now.”
Personally the biggest change was the birth of Marissa’s son, and Hitchcock’s grandson, Conner, in September.
“It’s a real affirmation of what can happen with such opportunities for improved care,” Hitchcock says of Marissa’s successful delivery. “Conner is healthy. Marissa is healthy. It was a staggering amount of work. It’s not easy, and it demonstrates how we still need better tools for diabetes management, but it’s a fantastic event in our lives.”
The most significant change for Children with Diabetes is that Hitchcock ended his five year relationship with Johnson & Johnson in December 2013. Hitchcock was able to buy his company and site back from the global maker of blood glucose monitors and insulin delivery systems, and reform it under the auspices of a nonprofit corporation.
When Johnson and Johnson bought Children with Diabetes in 2008, they joined other corporate sponsors who advertised with the site and formed a relationship with Jeff Hitchcock not only because the site attracted up to 80,000 unique monthly visitors, but also because of how Hitchcock had expanded the company into the arena of holding informational outreach conferences.
The Friends for Life Conferences, as they are called, were started almost by accident in 1999. Laura Billetdeaux, whose son has type 1 diabetes, was going on vacation in Orlando. She used the Children with Diabetes mailing list to ask other parents if they wanted to join her. 110 families—550 people—said yes, and the first conference was born.
“Getting together and sharing information on the website was important,” Hitchcock says. “At the time, in the late 1990s, there weren’t a lot of resources, and there were barely any websites, where people could find and share information to help their children with type 1 diabetes.
“But then, after the first conference, we also realized there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. There’s something special about forming those relationships one-on-one. There’s nothing like it. So, we pivoted and the conferences became a big focus of what we do.”
At one such conference the head of Animas Corporation, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that makes OneTouch insulin pumps, was so moved by what he experienced saw that decided to talk to Hitchcock about partnering with Johnson & Johnson.
A recent change in the Medicare competitive bidding process, however, severely reduced the amount of revenue companies earned from blood glucose test strips. That financial setback prompted Johnson & Johnson, and many other companies, to search for ways to cut costs. According to Hitchcock, although many of the sponsors of both the site and the conferences now attracting up to 3,500 participants continued to support both, Children with Diabetes felt a financial pinch.
“There was a dramatic decline in the blood meter space,” says Jeff Hitchcock. “These companies that felt that decline funded a lot of support for diabetes education and outreach. It’s not just us, it’s others as well that had to fund new resources or reduce the amount they could do.”
Just as he had with expanding into Friends for Life Conferences a decade and a half earlier, Hitchcock made the choice to pivot once again.
“We have to look to find new sources of funding in order to deliver what people expect and need,” Hitchcock says about the impact of the break with Johnson & Johnson.
For instance, he says, many of the children with diabetes that his organization interacted with almost twenty years ago are now young adults with diabetes. “We can reach back into that community for support,” Hitchcock says.
To that end, Hitchcock says he plans in on hiring a fundraising director in the next month, or so.
In the midst of all these changes, it is reassuring to know that some things stay the same, even if perhaps they really shouldn’t.
“Yeah,” Hitchcock, a former software engineer, says about the dated layout and look of the Children with Diabetes website, “it looks … old. But, it’s the best I can do as a mathematician.”
The issue, he says, is that there is so much information on the site that exporting it all into a shiny, new layout is a huge, cost prohibitive project.
“There are 35,000 pages of data available on the site,” Hitchcock says. “The Ask the Diabetes Team section alone has 20,000 pages of questions and answers. It’s a huge and interesting repository of information from 1995 and it’s available to anyone.”
It seems that, despite how change fosters growth, sometimes it’s just better to leave things as they are.
Alex O’Meara is a regular contributor to ASweetLife. He writes the blog The Other Side of Diabetes.