George Howarth MP: Benefits of Type 1 diabetes technology are often blocked by a postcode lottery of access
By allowing access to technology today, the NHS can create a better tomorrow for people with Type 1 diabetes, says George Howarth MP.
Type 1 diabetes affects about 400,000 people in the UK, 29,000 of whom are children. It cannot be prevented, it is not linked to lifestyle and there is currently no cure.
Imagine knowing that technology is around the corner that could provide ‘time off’ from the constant demands of managing your chronic condition, helping you improve your health and reduce your anxiety. Then imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t get hold of it.
It is for precisely this reason that I raised the issue in a Prime Minister’s Question last week: because the benefits of Type 1 diabetes technology are often blocked by a postcode lottery of access.
People with Type 1 diabetes have to rely on taking insulin every day just to stay alive (a child diagnosed at the age of five faces up to 19,000 injections and 50,000 finger prick blood tests by the time they are 18).
With Type 1 diabetes, a person’s pancreas has stopped producing its own insulin, which controls blood glucose levels. Maintaining these levels by injecting the right amount of insulin is difficult, but wearable diabetes technology can help. Access to this technology is crucial to help avoid health complications and to boost quality of life.
Two of the technological treatments for Type 1 diabetes today are the insulin pump and the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) – yet uptake and use remain low.
This is despite the UK’s strong position as a pioneer of biotech, and its role in developing the artificial pancreas – the Type 1 diabetes treatment of tomorrow.
An artificial pancreas brings a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump together, through an algorithm which allows them talk to each other. With this system, background insulin levels are automatically controlled.
Fortunately, the artificial pancreas is right around the corner, with research taking place around the world. This includes advanced human trials funded by Type 1 diabetes charity JDRF and conducted by Dr Hovorka’s team at the University of Cambridge.
While an artificial pancreas won’t remove all of the day to day challenges of Type 1 diabetes, it will be a real step forward. It can help people manage their blood glucose levels more tightly, particularly at night time when sleep prevents people from doing so.
A commercially available form of “first generation” artificial pancreas exists in the USA, and the manufacturer will soon bring the product to market in Europe and the UK. Given that only 12% of those with Type 1 in the UK are currently using insulin pumps, it is a very real concern that healthcare professionals would be unlikely to recommend an artificial pancreas if someone is not using a pump or a CGM already.
Not only do people with Type 1 diabetes deserve access to the best technology on the NHS – they need it. Given that a third of children with Type 1 diabetes had to be referred to psychological services in 2016-2017, the impact of the artificial pancreas for those with Type 1 diabetes, their parents and partners - cannot and should not be underestimated.
If the NHS addresses the issue of access today, a pathway is cleared to tomorrow’s technology, which will have an enormously beneficial impact for people with Type 1 Diabetes.
George Howarth is Labour MP for Knowsley.