Patients with diabetes comprise nearly a third of all hospitalizations in both Kern County and the state of California, according to a new study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
UCLA looked at statewide hospital discharge records for patients age 35 and older and broke them down by county.
In Kern, patients with diabetes accounted for 32 percent of overall hospitalizations, or 17,427 of those admitted for treatment in 2011.
"Some of these people could have come in for a car accident or heart attack," said Susan Babey, a senior research scientist at the center. "But diabetes is related to so many systems in the body. It affects eyes, skin, circulation, limbs, all kinds of things.
"So any time someone comes in for any reason, if they have diabetes, it's going to affect how they heal, and how long they stay."
Kern's hospitalizations for diabetics were the 14th highest of the state's 58 counties and added $38.3 million in additional costs to the hospital stays.
Imperial County led the state with 41 percent of its hospitalized patients suffering from diabetes, followed by Solano (36.2 percent), Yuba (35.7 percent), Merced (35.7 percent), Fresno (35.1 percent) and Sacramento (34.5 percent) counties.
The disease adds an extra $1.6 billion dollars a year to hospitalization costs statewide. It costs nearly $2,200 more to hospitalize diabetics than it does to care for patients without diabetes, according to the study.
Medicare and Medi-Cal pay for three-quarters of those bills, including $254 million for Medi-Cal alone.
Dr. Jennifer Abraham, who practices internal medicine in Bakersfield, said she wasn't surprised by the study's findings.
"There are so many diseases associated with diabetes, and we have high obesity rates here," she said.
Kern has an estimated 51,000 residents who are diabetic, and its obesity rate is among the highest in the state, according to the California Department of Health.
Part of that may be the demographics here. The disease disproportionately affects poor people, blacks and Latinos.
Of all Latino hospital patients in California, 43.2 percent had diabetes, compared with the overall statewide average of 31 percent, according to the study. Diabetics comprised 39.3 percent of African-Americans hospitalized, and 37.7 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders.
Reducing health care costs associated with diabetes requires a "multifaceted approach," said Kira Wiggins, a registered dietician, certified diabetes educator and director of community wellness at San Joaquin Community Hospital.
The region needs better urban planning to create more walkable communities, economic development to get access to healthy food into neighborhoods and a cultural change toward eating more meals at home, Wiggins said.
"So many of us live in communities where there's a convenience store or fast food restaurant on every corner, and we're eating a lot fewer home cooked meals," she said.
UCLA called diabetes a major public health issue, and called for better screening to catch undiagnosed cases and more education to help people living with the disease.
"They really need to have the tools they need to know what they can eat and when they can eat it," Babey said.