Thousands of diabetics are being put at risk of serious complications after being denied access to lifesaving technology, the UK’s leading diabetes charity has warned.
Two years ago, NHS bosses promised 80,000 Britons with type 1 diabetes a wearable blood glucose monitor, such as the £2-coin-sized FreeStyle Libre used by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
But an investigation by the charity Diabetes UK revealed that in some areas, just one patient in ten is receiving the device. It called the situation a ‘postcode lottery’.
People with deadly type 1 diabetes cannot produce the hormone insulin – essential for transferring glucose from food into the body’s cells – which makes their blood sugar levels unstable.
Rejected: Hannah Lowman, 29, from Bungay in Suffolk, with the £100-a-month blood sugar monitor she wears. She was denied an NHS device
Monitoring their blood glucose is vital to protect against damage to the heart, eyes and kidneys and prevent potentially fatal blood sugar crashes, known as hypos.
Most sufferers rely on finger-prick blood tests, carried out many times a day, but they can be painful and lead to skin damage. The needles, known as lancets, are designed to be used only once and have to be disposed of in special bins. Readings from the drops of blood the lancets extract are taken using a blood glucose meter.
However, the latest technology involves a small patch attached to the upper arm or abdomen. Sensors take glucose readings from fluid just under the skin and transmit them wirelessly to a mobile phone app, reducing the need for finger-prick tests.
Professor Partha Kar, NHS England’s deputy national clinical director for diabetes, said: ‘There’s no doubt they greatly improve quality of life.’
Research shows the monitors can help patients achieve better blood sugar control, slash diabetes-related sick days by a third, reduce hospital admissions and ease distress, Prof Kar said. He added that they save the NHS money in the longer term.
But many patients, such as stroke nurse Hannah Lowman, are being forced to pay £100 a month for the gadgets.
Hannah, 29, from Bungay in Suffolk, has been told she cannot have a device, for budget reasons, yet said it was life-changing during her recent high-risk pregnancy.
‘When my blood glucose did start to rise in the second trimester, which can be dangerous for the baby, the information was automatically uploaded to my diabetes specialist and we could act straight away to tweak my insulin medication,’ she explained.
Most sufferers rely on finger-prick blood tests, pictured above, carried out many times a day, but they can be painful and lead to skin damage (file photo)
Hannah now has a healthy son, Leo, but added: ‘Who knows what could have happened otherwise?’
Experts say the tool has never been more valuable, given the Covid restrictions on face-to-face appointments. And research shows diabetes patients are more likely to suffer serious Covid-19 illness, with some studies suggesting type 1 diabetics are up to three-and-a-half times more likely to die from the disease.
Daniel Howarth, head of care at Diabetes UK, said: ‘These monitors have huge benefits for people with diabetes, reducing hospital admissions and improving management of the condition. But there’s still a gap in terms of who can access them. There are reports of some people crossing borders into different areas in order to get them.
‘Lots of regular diabetes appointments aren’t going ahead, or are taking place remotely. Monitors could help – yet this technology is not being used when we know what a massive difference it could make to people’s health.’
NHS England figures show more than 30 per cent of the diabetic population in England now has access to the devices – above the 20 per cent originally pledged. But individual Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), made up of local GPs, decide how to spend their budgets, and many still are choosing not to fund the sensors.
Pumps that dispense insulin into the body around the clock, rather than relying on insulin injections, are also being rationed for funding reasons (file photo)
Diabetes UK today launches a campaign, Cheque For Tech, asking the Government to increase ringfenced funding for the diabetes technology. It is also calling for the eligibility criteria to be expanded.
To qualify for the monitors, an individual must have type 1 diabetes, a blood sugar level within a certain average range, and their condition must be so severe that they need to check glucose levels at least eight times a day.
This makes about one in five sufferers eligible, says NHS England. But thousands who fall outside these categories, including those with advanced type 2 diabetes who are reliant on insulin, could also benefit, says Diabetes UK.
In some places, only one sufferer in ten is getting the device
It is not just blood glucose monitors that are being restricted. Pumps that dispense insulin into the body around the clock, rather than relying on insulin injections, are also being rationed for funding reasons.
The charity said its research found half of people with diabetes had been refused access to technology over the past decade – and 40 per cent of those struggled to pay for it themselves.
Hannah said: ‘I’m lucky my parents could step in and pay for the sensors, because with a young family, I’d struggle to meet the cost.’
Prof Kar said a letter had been sent last week to all CCGs by NHS England, asking them to look at the latest evidence on the benefits of the tech and to consider whether more people could benefit.
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