How It Was Told
The narrative that the NHS is being overwhelmed with diabetes is a familiar one.
As a condition that is often linked to obesity and inactivity, it is one of the areas that has been earmarked for a more preventative focus in the NHS Long-Term Plan. That is why it makes sense that news outlets would be keen on quantifying just how many patients are being treated by doctors and nurses for diabetes every day.
That’s where the Mail Online’s story – under the headline “Hospitals deluged by 5,000 diabetics a DAY: One in 10 admissions is for diabetes as cost of treating patients DOUBLES in a decade” – came from.
According to the story, the 5,000 Type 2 diabetes patients being treated every day “laid bare the scale of the growing crisis”. Mail Online also warned that doctors are now seeing children under nine who need help, while some patients need up to 200 health appointments a year “to deal with the condition”.
They also said that there were 1.7 million admissions of patients with Type 2 diabetes last year.
This story had obvious appeal for other news outlets and was picked up by The Daily Telegraph with the headline: “NHS treating 5,000 diabetics a day as one in 10 patients now suffer with illness, figures reveal”.
The Sun also followed suit, opting for: “BREAKING POINT Hospitals overwhelmed by 5,000 diabetics a DAY with one in 10 admissions down to condition”.
But are the figures right?
Yes and no. This is a situation where reading beyond the headline is paramount.
When the data was sent to Mail Online, it carried the disclaimer: “This should not be described as counts of people, as the same person may have been admitted to hospital on more than one occasion within any given time period.”
While this was largely adhered to in the stories, it’s fair to say that the headlines are a little looser with that interpretation – a quick scan would not tell you that it is related to admissions and the way the term “diabetics” is used is bordering on insensitive.
The reason why this is crucial is that people could be treated more than once in a day, for instance – something that Mail Online notes but The Sun and The Daily Telegraph omit.
The headline figure is also misleading as the data relates to both primary and secondary diagnosis. This means that, in the case of primary, people would be treated for diabetes but, for secondary, they may just happen to have diabetes but could have been treated for anything. The stories don’t distinguish between the two.
As for the 1.7 million admissions, the data shows that that is true, albeit with the caveats just mentioned, but for children aged under nine the figures have been largely consistent over the last decade.
In a blog written in response to the stories, Diabetes UK’s Helen Dickens bemoans how these stories “feed into a dangerous, unhelpful narrative” that perpetuates the stigma that people with diabetes can feel about their impact on the NHS.
But all this doesn’t mean that eating healthily and exercising to prevent diabetes is a bad idea.
As Dickens concludes: “Our advice to everyone with diabetes – whatever their type – is to remember their health is incredibly important, and maintaining it is impossible without the support of clinicians across the health service.”