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Is the true cost of diabetes even more than we think?

Posted on 19 August 2015
Tags: Health Survey for England, NHS, diabetes, health and lifestyle

Over the past decade, the number of people living with diabetes has increased by over 1 million people, according to new research released by Diabetes UK this week. This costs the NHS nearly £10 billion a year for diabetes alone – 10% of the entire NHS budget for England and Wales. It is estimated that by 2025, five million people will have diabetes in the UK. If preventative action isn’t taken, prevalence of diabetes will continue to increase and the cost to the NHS will soar.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in the UK.  The rise in prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the UK has been put down to increasing obesity, a lack of exercise, unhealthy diets and an ageing population. Certain factors are unavoidable; however, if the disease is not managed appropriately at an early stage then there is an increased risk of complications such as heart attacks and strokes.

And yet the startling statistics highlighted by Diabetes UK only include people who have been diagnosed with diabetes; our data shows that there is a further group of people who may have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. NatCen have been working on The Health Survey for England since 1993 and each year have come across a number of undiagnosed type 2 diabetes cases, with this year showing the highest proportion yet. This suggests that the 60% increase in the prevalence of diabetes highlighted by Diabetes UK may not actually reveal the true extent of the problem.

So what about the people who don’t know they have diabetes?

During our research for the Health Survey for England (HSE), our specialist nurses carry out health examinations with our participants, including testing the glycated haemoglobin levels in their blood. A higher level of glycated haemoglobin indicates that the person may have type 2 diabetes. The results found a surprising number of people who appear to be living with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. In 2013, 2.8% of men and 2.2% of women in our sample showed signs indicative of the disease. That equates to around 750,000 men and 600,000 women living with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes in England. Therefore the true cost of diabetes to the NHS is probably even higher than £10 billion.

If the soaring trend in type 2 diabetes continues, the NHS will face further difficulties in funding the required services and the strain from this disease will only become greater.

Is there a way to reduce the growing cost and improve the quality of life of people living with diabetes?

As a number of cases are undiagnosed, a greater awareness of type 2 diabetes created through health promotion and education systems may help to highlight the risks of developing type 2 diabetes and the symptoms to look out for. This may not only reduce some of the pressure on the NHS but also assist in improving the health and quality of life of millions of people living with type 2 diabetes. The analysis from Diabetes UK highlighted that 80% of the £10 billion spent per year goes towards managing avoidable complications.

Prediabetes, when the blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not quite high enough to be classed as type 2 diabetes, is another common issue in the UK. This condition can develop into type 2 diabetes but can also be prevented from developing through lifestyle changes like losing weight, being more active and making healthy food choices. With improved information and education, some cases of type 2 diabetes may actually be averted which could in turn reduce the pressure on the NHS and improve the health of many. Surely that’s a good investment of resource.

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