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14 August 2012

The NHS is not giving enough priority to diabetes

Astonishingly, this isn't about a lack of money.

By Barbara Young

As someone who has run NHS bodies and been an NHS groupie for more years than I care to think about, I wept with joy at the tribute to our health service in Danny Boyle’s breathtaking opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games. For me, those that work tirelessly for our health services are an even greater pride to Britain than our amazing athletes.

But as brilliant as those working in the NHS undoubtedly are, the sad fact is that as an institution it is failing when it comes to diabetes healthcare. Diabetes is one of the greatest health challenges we face but its rise seems to be inexorable and the seriousness with which it is tackled simply doesn’t match the seriousness of the condition and its complications.

There are now 3.7m people with diabetes in the UK and 7m at high risk and the fact that rates of devastating diabetes complications such as kidney failure and stroke are now at record levels is one of the reasons that 24,000 people with diabetes die early every year. To put it simply, diabetes is big a big, growing and serious problem to which insufficient priority is being given. 

The astounding thing is that it is not about money. How often are these words heard? Not often. The NHS already spends 10 per cent of its annual budget on diabetes – that £10bn is more than the total amount of money spent on the London Olympics over the last seven years. For this kind of investment, you would expect Jessica Ennis-esque levels of healthcare performance but much diabetes spending is going on the wrong things.

About 80 per cent of NHS spending on diabetes goes on treating the devastating diabetes complications, such as blindness, amputations and kidney disease, the vast majority of which are basically avoidable, while not enough is being done to prevent complications from occurring in the first place. For example, less than half of the people who should have been screened for diabetes under the NHS Vascular healthcheck have been. 

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Risk assessment and early diagnosis are key to giving people treatment as early as possible that can help prevent complications developing or help them avoid developing diabetes if they are at high risk. Barely half of people with diabetes are getting the basic checks they need to manage their condition. Fixing both of these things could save the NHS Olympic scale cash through fewer hospital admissions and less complex treatments. It would also ensure that those with diabetes have a better quality of life and in many cases mean the difference between life and death.

As the London Olympics comes to a close I hope one of the lasting legacies of these games will be greater participation in sport and physical activity. Not only would this lead to better health and well-being for people across the country, but could also play a crucial role in reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes.  But if the growing problem of diabetes is to be truly tackled – and the ticking time bomb at the heart of the NHS defused – then we need the NHS and Government to declare and make diabetes a priority in the way that as a nation we prioritised the effective delivery of a wonderful Games. 

Barbara Young is chief executive of Diabetes UK