Posted by on Thursday 16 December 2010

Diabetes bashing on Channel 4 News

UK diabetes forums erupted in indignation yesterday following a report on Channel 4 news.
Channel 4 News - Diabetes: the insulin investigation
While on the subject of health, I should mention that later in the programme we have a completely sensational film about diabetes and the high cost of a new form of insulin.
Diabetes already costs the NHS £9bn a year - our investigation has discovered that these new insulins - now used by millions in the UK - only offer minor benefits compared to older versions. Meanwhile they are costing us tens of millions extra annually.

The film exposes what some see as an attempt by big pharmaceuticals to transfer the world's diabetes sufferers onto an insulin which has only modest advantages for most patients - but is very profitable for the companies who make it.
I didn't see the report when it aired but thanks to the wonder of the interweb I was able to watch it today. This put me in the strange position of beginning to work out what I felt about it before I'd seen it.

Initially I wasn't sure what everyone was so upset about. But then I watched it.

The real shame is that the actual story is quite interesting. I didn't realise, for example, that there were more type 2's using insulin than type 1's (at least this is what was inferred in the report). I suppose it is possible since the number of type 2's is so much higher that even the relatively small percentage of those who use insulin therapy do indeed outnumber the total number of type 1's (who all use insulin), but it was still a surprise.

For type 2's using insulin the report suggests that many (most?) patients would get very similar results using older human insulin formulations as they do with the newer (and significantly more expensive) analogues. It was not made clear how this had been researched. If you watched very carefully, and if you already know a great deal about the subject matter you might just about have been able to glean that none of this is the fault, or choice of the patients. That it is the Big Pharma reps who stroll around hopitals wooing DSNs and diabetes clinics so that analogues become the default choice. That those specialist nurses are often far less familiar with the older formulations and do not feel confident in putting patients on them. There's no point in keeping patients, particularly diabetics, on older ineffective therapies because the short-term savings will be far outweighed by the cost in treating the diabetic complications that will follow. Similarly there is no need to prescribe insulins which cost 2 or 3 times as much if a more cost effective medicine provides the same therapeutic benefit. Which variety of insulin a patient uses should be a decided by clinical need, not some lazy default choice and certainly not purely on the encouragement of a Big Pharma rep!

Sadly, I suspect almost no one understood this from the report. Especially if they have heard or read pretty much anything else about diabetes in the last few years in the media. Because there is a very real, very big problem with the way matters concerning diabetes is reported in this country. In my experience the thrust of pretty much every article is in one of two directions.

  1. Diabetes is very, very expensive to treat and it is costing the NHS (and that means you dear reader) an absolute arm and a leg in taxes.
  2. Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar and/or fat. People who get it are fat, lazy and only have themselves to blame. Now see point 1.
Occasionally the journos might throw in some other snippet about it being 'cured' by eating your own earwax or something similarly ludicrous, but by and large it seems to be either 1 or 2 or a combination of the two. And the more exaggerated and terrible they can make the story the better.

So it is into this terribly mis-informed world that yesterday's news report lands. Did they take the opportunity to explain some of the complexities of the condition? No. Did they carefully explain which of the many types of diabetes were affected? Not really. The focus was unnecessary cost and unless you know different already you would assume that the problem lies with every diabetic. Indeed many outraged comments from diabetics suggest that even those 'in the know' were mightily confused.

It didn't help that they began with a headline figure of the £9 billion. That is a whole lot of NHS money, and it goes on treating diabetes in the UK. Having got the really juicy, scarily big number out there they then threw about lots of other costs and figures. £300 million a year on insulin, and later £250 million potential saving. What? You could save almost the entire cost? Ah no! Sorry, you weren't listening carefully... the £250 million was over 5 years. So that's £50 million a year. Still not to be sniffed at, but sensationalist journalism and quite misleading.

Part of the problem, of course is that nothing about diabetes is easy.

The media don't understand it. They don't feel the need to understand it. It's a Big Problem and rather than take the trouble to research it properly they can stick with what they know (see points 1 and 2 above).

It seems to me that diabetes is an umbrella term for perhaps dozens of different disorders - Type 1, LADA, MODY, Gestational, Double and of course Type 2 the media's favourite Big Target. Some types quite are closely related, others very, very different and I've read that Type 2 is really just another umbrella term for a very large number of sub-types. The reporting, though, only ever talks about 'diabetes' as if it were some sort of indivisible whole. There was a passing mention of type 2 last night (about halfway through) but no explanation as to what that meant, or how and when a person with type 2 might be put on insulin. There was no clear explanation given about when the more expensive insulins are particularly effective and well worth the extra cost. Again and again different talking heads just repeated that 'the old stuff is just as good, and it's so much cheaper!'. Particularly misleading was the repeated blurry white-room shot (sourced from an image library by the look of it) with several young twentysomethings injecting into their abdomens. A group of people who seemed pretty much your archetypal type 1's to me, illustrating a report about insulin therapy in type 2.

The tragedy is that, from my type 1 perspective there seems to be a significant problem with the way type 2 diabetes is treated in the UK. Many of the type 2's in question will now be using insulin because their diabetes has progressed through treatment by diet and exercise, then oral medications and finally to insulin. They will probably have been refused prescriptions for blood glucose strips by their GP (even though the NICE guidelines mentioned in the report support SMBG - Self Monitoring of Blood Glucose in motivated individuals). Many will have been told they don't need to test, an annual HbA1c is enough. Without the ability to monitor what happens to their blood glucose levels when they follow the dietary advice they are given they will not have known how catastrophic it can be. In it's most extreme form "eat lots of starchy carbs with every meal" I have heard accounts from type 2's who actually began to eat more carbohydrate after diagnosis believing it will keep them healthy. More carbohydrate = higher blood glucose = more damage and excess glucose stored as fat.

Now if the £50 million a year saving was reinvested in test strips for type 2's. And proper education was put in place to help individuals establish the level and types of carbohydrate that their bodies can tolerate (because every diabetic is different), perhaps the 'inevitable' progression towards insulin, for some at least would be slowed. Maybe for others it would be reversed. I have heard of many type 2 diabetics who have moderated their carbohydrate intake by self-funded SMBG and have been able to reduce and then stop oral meds altogether. And at least one who appears to have recovered normal pancreatic function almost entirely.

Now that really would save the NHS some cash.

Curious? You can watch the report here.


  1. Mike, I agree with everything you've said here, and you've put it in a much more articulate way than I ever could. Brilliant post. I'm going to tweet & link this on my blog.

  2. Thanks Siobhan. It's such a shame because every time diabetes is in the news it's a chance for the reporters to set the record straight and properly educate people, but they never do.

  3. Mike, this is a very thoughtful article. I hope the news agencies do pick it up. I didn't see the Channel 4 New programme as bashing people with diabetes, more criticising drugs companies and health professionals who hadn't looked at the cost and benefits of drug choice and weren't following NICE recommendations.

  4. Thanks Mike - a good blog spot. Ever thought of becoming a local councillor/local government. We need reps from the type 1 community and I am sure you would champion type 2's as well. Why is it that Diabetics are let down so badly in the media and by the media. I let my 11 year old watch the report and she was totally confused by it. I think it made her feel guilty that she had diabetes at all because she said "I dont want to be taking an expensive thing anyway mum - I wish I was normal" It was heartbreaking for me. Sensible reporting with all the facts presented in a measured way would have helped. We are all in the hands of our consultants anyway. I would, in some ways prefer my daughter to be on Human Insulin - as it is so tried and tested but the DSN seemed resistant to this idea. I think she is convinced that the analogues are better and safer. I have almost given up feeling outraged and upset about the lack of knowledge people have about her condition (type 1). I am too busy trying to keep her well. Thanks for sharing with us again - keep it up - and have a great christmas.

  5. Thanks for your comment Anon. What a heartbreaking thing for your daughter to have said. For what little it's worth I do find analogues a little more reliable than the human insulins I was on some years ago, particularly the basal insulin, which while not without it's own glitches does at least offer the possibility of a hypo-free night with careful handling.