Diabetes affects more than 1 million people in Australia alone, which, if not properly managed, can lead to complications, such as eye damage, stroke, and foot disease for many sufferers.

For the first time, scientists have looked into just how much one of these conditions, known as diabetic foot disease, costs the Australian government – and have found the cost of hospitalisation alone is AU$350 million each year.

Worst of all, the condition is preventable when detected early.

"Our study, which investigated a representative sample of hospitalised patients in five hospitals across metropolitan and regional Queensland, found 4.6 percent of all patients had active diabetic foot disease and nearly half of those were in hospital because of their diabetic foot disease," said Peter Lazzarini, the one of the researchers, from QUT (Queensland University of Technology). 

"This equates to 27,600 hospitalisations each year caused by diabetic foot disease in Australia, which puts diabetic foot disease easily in the top 20 causes of hospitalisation in Australia."

So what is diabetic foot disease? Some diabetics suffer from something called peripheral nerve dysfunction, which reduce patients' ability to feel pain. That means that minor injuries, which most people would notice immediately and get treated for, can go undiscovered for weeks and months.

On top of that, diabetes can also make these injuries worse by impeding the body from healing itself - due to the extracellular matrix (an important skin component) not replenishing.

But Lazzarini says that the cost of diabetic foot disease doesn't stop at just money, it also causes 4,400 amputations and nearly 1,700 deaths in Australia each year.

"If diabetic foot disease is left untreated it can quite easily result in hospitalisation, amputation and even death," he said.

"Unfortunately, we also found that people hospitalised because of diabetic foot disease had rarely received the recommended multi-disciplinary foot care needed to properly treat their disease in the year prior to their hospitalisation. This seems to confirm our thoughts that people with diabetic foot disease that do not see a multi-disciplinary foot disease team are more likely to end up in hospital."

So what's the solution? Early prevention.

The study recommends that with early prevention, half of all hospitalisations, amputations, and costs could be avoided.

"Diabetic foot disease is a readily preventable disease if diagnosed and treated early," Lazzarini said.

"People with diabetes need to see their GP or podiatrist at least every year for a foot screen.  Unfortunately, people with diabetes can lose feeling in their feet and left unchecked diabetic foot disease can develop in the form of sores, infections and poor circulation … If we can pick up diabetic foot disease early and refer people to these multi-disciplinary foot teams we can prevent thousands of hospitalisations, amputations and even deaths."

Lazzarini believes this is something that both diabetics and the government can work towards, and have called upon better awareness for the condition.

"We know these simple preventative measures can save our hospital system millions and millions of dollars each year, but most importantly, change the lives of thousands of Australians with diabetes by empowering them to keep both their feet firmly on the ground and out of hospital," he said.

The study was published in BMJ Open

Queensland University of Technology is a sponsor of ScienceAlert. Find out more about their research.