The HbA1c Teaching Model: Making Diabetes Education Tangible


When I think about my hemoglobin A1c, my expression initially turns into a grimace as I think about a phlebotomist poking my arm with a needle to collect a blood sample. Then, anxiety becomes the prevalent emotion on my face as I worry about what my reading will be this time around. My mind wanders to the little color-coded chart tacked on the wall that explains healthy A1c levels in a very simplistic way. Anything above 9 is in the dangerous red zone, 7-8 is in the cautious yellow zone, and anything below 7 is considered in the healthy green zone. This chart certainly conveys what a good A1c level is, but it completely fails in explaining why a person with diabetes should work hard to maintain a healthy one.

That’s why when I heard about Casey Steffen’s HbA1c teaching model, I was instantly intrigued. It is a scientific model of a HbA1c protein  that is tangible so people with diabetes and health care professionals can see what protein glycation looks like. This description made me want to learn more, so I spoke with Steffen, who demonstrated a great deal of passion in launching this diabetes education crowdfunding initiative.

First, I wanted to know what exactly the teaching model represents, and why it was created. Steffen explained to me that as a person who has lived with type one diabetes for the past 18 years, he has come to understand the importance of maintaining control over his blood sugars. His former endocrinologist, Dr.  Mary Vouyiouklis, played a central role in his learning process where his knowledge regarding HbA1c is concerned.

As Steffen began to describe his campaign to me, I realized that despite living with diabetes for 16 years myself, I didn’t even have a very good personal definition of A1c other than that it’s a three-month average of my blood sugars. Steffen helped me understand science behind it. He explained that the test “looks at how much of the proteins in the body have been glycated due to elevated levels of blood glucose. Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells, and readily available to sample.” Endocrinologists are concerned with the accumulation of glucose to hemoglobin, so they need to measure this with the test to correct any possible issues their patient may be having. The A1c test examines the hemoglobin inside blood cells to check on the glycation on the protein itself. “When glucose attaches to the protein, it does so permanently via a chemical bond. When this happens to it, the protein can’t function properly which causes some diabetes complications. Blood cells are great to be able to look at, and because their lifespan is 3 months, it is an effective way to see how you’ve been doing the past 90 days,” says Steffen.

Now that I had a greater understanding of the HbA1c test and how it could affect my diabetes, I asked Steffen to explain the goals of his education campaign. He wants to “bring awareness to the real effects of blood sugar elevations and to communicate this information that is missing from our diabetes education.” He explains that during the research process, he realized that there was a deficit in education that he wanted to actively change due to the significance of the issue and its health implications. Steffen believes that this initiative will benefit diabetes educators, healthcare professionals, and patients who are seeking education about HbA1c.

Steffen, a medical illustrator, worked with Dr. Vouyiouklis and Michael Gulen (Design Development Director at the McFarlane Design Group) to create a physical object that shows glycated hemoglobin A1c. The prototype was successfully tested in a clinical setting with type one and type two patients, as well in a youth foundation where children’s understanding of the test greatly increased after a class on HbA1c.

Between March 27th and May 10th, a crowdfunding initiative is activated in order to support the success of this teaching model launching. Steffen hopes that the outcome results in healthcare professionals having “empowering education materials that they can use to help the patients in their lives.” He believes that “this is the information that can encourage people to change behaviors if they need to or bring clarity to this condition,” as well as “help people achieve better health.”


If you would like to support the campaign or learn more, visit There, you can see firsthand what the model looks like and attain in-depth information.


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Jackie Johannnes
Jackie Johannnes
8 years ago

Fascinating!  I hadn’t heard about this campaign or Casey before this.  All endocrinologists, especially pediatric endocrinologists, would benefit greatly with this model.

8 years ago

What a cool idea! Thanks for writing about it. I love the part in the video with the kids.

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