Paying to screen people at risk of developing diabetes could end up actually saving the National Health Service money as well as help to improve patient lives through early intervention, a study by Dr Clare Gillies from the University of Leicester has found.

Almost 2.5 million people in the UK suffer from diabetes and, according to charity Diabetes UK, this figure will rise to more than 4 million by 2025. With an estimated cost to the NHS of around £10,000 a minute, diabetes and its complications are a huge burden on resources.

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council, Gillies developed a computer model to assess the cost and health implications of four different screening scenarios for patients with poor glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes.

The computer model simulated a population of 45 year old patients at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and estimated both the cost and health outcomes for the following different screening policies over 50 years: no screening at all; screening patients for just type 2 diabetes, leading to early diagnosis and treatment; screening for impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes, leading to earlier treatment as well as giving patients with poor glucose tolerance the chance to change their lifestyles and thereby cut the risk of developing the disease; and again screening for both conditions but investigating the impact of drug intervention instead of lifestyle changes.

“Conclusions drawn from the work were that screening for type 2 diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance, with appropriate interventions for the latter, in an above average risk population at age 45, appears to be cost effective,” Gillies concluded, but she added that more work needs to be done to determine the cost-effectiveness of screening for diabetes alone.

Health MOT on the cards
Earlier this year, the government unveiled plans to offer everyone aged between 40 and 74 a health MOT to screen for vascular diseases – heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease - which kill 170,000 every year, to help identify those at risk from such illnesses and prevent them from developing in the first place, as well as detect existing cases earlier to boost treatment outcomes.

According to the Department of Health, the new programme will launch in 2009/10 at an initial cost of £250 million, but should help save the NHS valuable time and resources through preventing 2,000 deaths, 9,500 heart attacks and strokes and 4,000 cases of diabetes every year.