Prescriptions for diabetes medications in England have now topped 40 million a year for the first time, rising nearly 50% from six years ago, say new figures.

The net cost of diabetes drugs has also risen just under 50% over the six years, and these growth levels are greater than for prescriptions overall in England, where items increased 33% and net ingredient costs rose by just under 11% over the same period, says the new report, published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

The study, which focuses on primary care, shows that diabetes drugs are taking up a bigger share of both total drugs dispensed and the total net cost to the NHS in England each year. 

It also shows that while the overall cost of all drugs to the NHS fell last year by just over 1%, the diabetes drugs bill increased nearly 5%.

In 2011-12, it says:
- 40.6 million diabetes prescription items were dispensed in the community, a rise of 6.1% (or 2.3 million items) over 2010-11 and a 49.9% increase (13.5 million items) on 2005-6;
- diabetes drugs accounted for 4.2% of all items dispensed in England and 8.9% of the total net ingredient cost bill, compared to 4.1% and 8.4% in 2010-11 and 3.7% and 6.6% in 2005-6; and

– since 2007-8, diabetes drugs have accounted for the highest cost of any of the 200 sections listed within the British National Formulary (BNF). In 2011-12, the diabetes section of the BNF also saw the second-highest rise in net ingredient cost of any section compared to 2010-11.

"Our figures show diabetes is having a growing impact on prescribing in a very obvious way - from the amount of prescriptions dispensed to patients in primary care to the annual drugs bill costs to the NHS," said HSCIC chief executive Tim Straughan.

"Other reports we produce, such as our National Diabetes Audit and the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF), also demonstrate the impact of diabetes is widespread in all areas of the health service, from pharmacy to hospital care. When all this information is considered together, it presents a full and somewhat concerning picture of the increasing impact of this condition," he added.

Commenting on the report, Diabetes UK points out that about 2.5 million people in England have been diagnosed with diabetes and the number with the condition is expected to reach 4.2 million by 2025.

"We face the real possibility of diabetes bankrupting the NHS within a generation," warned the charity's chief executive, Barbara Young.

"This is why we need to grasp the nettle on preventing type 2 diabetes, which accounts for around 90% of diabetes cases. We need a government-funded awareness-raising campaign on the risk factors and symptoms of type 2 diabetes and we need to get much better at identifying people at high risk so they can be given the support they need to prevent the condition," said Baroness Young.

'The existing NHS Health Check, which everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 should be getting, has the potential to do this but has so far been poorly implemented. It is only by improving this that we can end the steep rise in the number of people with diabetes and so begin to bring the spiralling financial cost of the condition under control," she went on.