One in five hospital patients now suffers from diabetes, according to a national audit which reveals the devastating impact of changes in British lifestyles.
Soaring obesity levels have triggered record levels of the condition, which increases the risks of heart and kidney failure, and can result in blindness, nerve damage and amputations.
The first ever diabetes audit of NHS hospitals has found that 20 per cent of patients on hospital wards are now suffering from the disease – twice the proportion previously estimated.
Doctors said the figures, which will be published officially later this year, showed the “terrifying burden” the epidemic is placing on Britain’s population and the crippling effect it is having on NHS resources.
Some patients were being treated for direct consequences of the condition, after uncontrolled blood sugar levels caused them to fall into a coma, or suffer kidney failure, ulcers, or nerve damage.
Others suffered heart attacks and strokes, the risk of which is increased fivefold by diabetes.
While the figures include diabetics admitted for ill-health unrelated to their condition, the audit is expected to show that these patients stayed in hospital far longer than others, in some cases, because of the extra risks posed by their condition and in others, because the diabetes was not properly managed.
Experts said the existing burden on Britain’s hospitals reflected the impact of increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.
Prof Anthony Barnett, clinical director for diabetes at Heart of England NHS Foundation trust, said: “The situation we are facing as a country is absolutely terrifying.
“The obesity rates get worse and worse, the numbers with diabetes keep mushrooming, and given that these people are prone to a whole range of other serious medical conditions, it has an enormous impact on NHS resources.”
Of the 2.6 million people in the UK with the condition, 2.3 million have type 2 diabetes, where nine out of ten cases are related to lifestyle causes, such as obesity, low exercise levels, smoking and alcohol use.
Cases of type 2 diabetes have doubled since 1996, in line with the rise of obesity. If rates of obesity continue to spiral, by 2025, treatment costs for more than 4 million diabetics could consume one quarter of the NHS budget, projections show.
The Government’s diabetes tsar Dr Rowan Hillson, who is leading the audit of 200 hospitals said all patients admitted to hospital with diabetes should be given access to specialist advice, whatever the reason for their admission, so that potentially lethal complications were not missed.
She said: “This is absolutely crucial; there is evidence that the appointment of specialist nurses can reduce readmissions of patients with diabetes, as well as drug errors, and length of stay.”
Previous research by charity Diabetes UK has found that just half of diabetes patients reported being seen by a specialist nurse during their hospital stay.
Another study found 20 per cent of diabetes patients were not given their medication at the right time, while 30 per cent said staff had been unaware they suffered from the condition.
Research has shown that the number of people undergoing lower limb amputations because of ulcers caused by diabetes has doubled in the last decade.
Around 5,000 people a year undergo a lower limb amputation, when circulation problems caused by diabetes result in foot ulcers and sores which become infected.
Surgeons say as many as half of the operations could have been avoided if expert care was received sooner.
Vascular surgeon Prof Roger Greenhalgh, from Imperial College Healthcare trust, said: “The numbers of amputations are going up, and that is partly because of the increased prevalence of diabetes, but we are also finding too many cases are not referred to specialists early enough”.
Dr Hillson, a consultant at Hillingdon Hospital in London, said the best parts of the NHS referred all diabetics with foot problems to a team made up of several types of specialists, to ensure complex problems were not missed, but said this was not yet standard practice.
She said: “One of the complications of acute diabetes is foot problems that can lead to amputation and even death.
“We know an enormous amount can be done to prevent this, and that this can save limbs, but there is variable practice across the country,” she said.
Russ Harris, from Bournemouth, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, aged 61, in 1999.
The former salesman, who enjoyed a rich diet while on the road, working for a company which sold Danish pastries, was 19 stone when he suddenly lost five stone in just three months, and began to suffer thirst and frequent urination.
Since his diagnosis, he has been admitted to hospital several times for complications linked to diabetes, including major fluid retention, while renal problems have reduced his kidney function to one quarter.
Mr Harris said: “When I was diagnosed with diabetes I thought all I would have to do is keep off the sugar, but it really screwed everything up.
“I would have taken a lot more care about my diet when I was younger if I realised the damage I was doing.”