Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

How diabetes is placing a strain on the UAE healthcare system

A 2012 report by Booz Allen Hamilton consultancy said diabetes treatment constituted 40 per cent of the UAE’s overall healthcare expenditure, amounting to US$6.6 billion in 2011.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, four out of every 10 adults with diabetes are undiagnosed in the Mena region. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National
According to the International Diabetes Federation, four out of every 10 adults with diabetes are undiagnosed in the Mena region. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National

Over the years, diabetes has become the scourge of the UAE’s health system, affecting one in every seven adults. It costs the country billions of dirhams to treat those affected, and the number of cases continues to rise.

Diabetes impacts individuals, families, the health system, businesses and the economy. Last year, an estimated 1,400 people died because of diabetes, with close to half of them under the age of 60, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

And as per data compiled by Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), by 2040, one in every five adults in the UAE will be living with diabetes.

“If this number continues to grow, it could have devastating effects on the region – socially and fiscally – as well as pose threats to economic progress and investment stability in the region,” says Dr Safdar Naqvi, executive and medical director of ICLDC, Abu Dhabi.

The most frustrating factor for health authorities and the Government is that the increase is not inevitable, and should and could be prevented. Most of the evidence suggests type 2 diabetes can be prevented and just 30 minutes of exercise a day can reduce the risk of developing it by 40 per cent.

The International Diabetes Federation is stern in its warning: “As there are projected to be 642 million people with diabetes in 2040, it is essential that more efforts are put into improving type 2 prevention plans and introducing more cost-effective management of type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.”

If countries are to make strides in tackling the disease, it says, awareness of symptoms and screening are essential.

ICLDC launched its “Diabetes Knowledge Action” campaign 10 years ago. It runs football matches, patient-education forums and workshops in schools and universities.

Naqvi, also a consultant physician and endocrinologist, says increasing public awareness of diabetes not only changes the quality of life but should also deliver long-term changes that benefit the entire society.

“It is also important to work on non-clinical aspects such as commitment to choice and transparency, around food labelling for example, where information can often be confusing or misleading and results in bad dietary choices,” he says.

Healthcare expenditure for people with diabetes can be up to three times higher than for those without, according to estimates by the International Diabetes Federation.

A 2012 report by Booz Allen Hamilton consultancy said diabetes treatment constituted 40 per cent of the UAE’s overall healthcare expenditure, amounting to US$6.6 billion (Dh24.24bn) in 2011, or 1.8 per cent of its gross domestic product.

The cost of treating diabetics also has a knock-on effect on the rest of the population, contributing to higher health insurance premiums in the private sector to help cover the higher costs.

If almost a third of the population has diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020, says Naqvi, it will add more strain to the already stretched healthcare budget.

“Direct treatment of diabetes consumes a significant amount of the healthcare budget in the UAE,” he says. “The growth of diabetes is so serious that healthcare systems will soon be struggling to cope with the costs of treating the predicted level of complications.”

Another major concern? Undiagnosed cases. Four out of every 10 adults with the illness are undiagnosed in the Mena region, according to the International Diabetes Federation. These people are more at risk of developing complications, says Naqvi.

“Usual symptoms include thirst, passing urine frequently and tiredness. However, these symptoms often go unnoticed and many people have diabetes without having any symptoms. This is why it is so important for people to have screening tests, especially if they are at risk.”

The UAE is by no means alone with regard to its high prevalence; the picture across the Middle East is similar. In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, 20 per cent of adults, between the ages of 20 and 79, have diabetes.

This means the disease is very likely to significantly shape the region’s health sector in coming years.

“An increase in diabetes will mean a rise in the demand and that will intensify pressure for highly specialised medical services, which will impact the Government’s healthcare expenditures,” says Naqvi. “This is why awareness and prevention are so important and we must act now.”

Updated: September 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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