OBJECTIVE

We test the hypotheses that the implementation in Denmark of new, stricter European Union (EU) legislation on driver’s licensing, with the purpose to improve traffic safety in January 2012, has reduced the self-reported rate of severe hypoglycemia in a routine clinical setting and that anonymous reporting results in higher event rates.

RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS

A cohort of 309 patients with type 1 diabetes was recruited in the outpatient clinic at Nordsjællands University Hospital Hillerød, Denmark. Yearly numbers of severe hypoglycemic events defined by need for treatment assistance from another person were retrieved from medical records in the years 2010 to 2012 and retrospectively reported in an anonymous questionnaire. Data from medical records in 2012 were compared with those from 2010 and 2011 and with data from the questionnaire.

RESULTS

Reported rates of severe hypoglycemia in the medical records were reduced by 55% in 2012 compared with the prior years (P = 0.034). The proportion of subjects reporting recurrent episodes was grossly reduced from 5.6 to 1.5% (P = 0.014). Compared with anonymous reporting in the questionnaire, the rate of severe hypoglycemia in 2012 was 70% lower (P < 0.001).

CONCLUSIONS

Reporting of severe hypoglycemia by patients with type 1 diabetes is significantly reduced following implementation of EU driver’s licensing legislation that implies withdrawal of driver’s licensing in case of recurrent episodes within 1 year. The resulting burden of concealed severe hypoglycemia may impair the safety of affected patients and unintentionally paradoxically reduce the general traffic safety.

Occurrence of severe hypoglycemia with cognitive disruption and impaired self-care is the main side effect of insulin therapy in type 1 diabetes, representing a threat toward safety and well-being of the patients (1). Knowledge about occurrence of hypoglycemia in the individual patient is a prerequisite to reduce the risk of future episodes. Assessment of hypoglycemia is therefore mandatory and should be made at every outpatient visit.

Even mild hypoglycemia reduces driving performance and decision making, and severe hypoglycemia may lead to motor vehicle accidents when occurring during driving (27). Consequently, driver’s licensing for patients with type 1 diabetes requires an assessment of the future risk of severe hypoglycemia to be low (2,8,9). The legislation on driver’s licensing, however, varies considerably between countries. In Europe, this has led to the elaboration of the European Union Third Directive on Driving in 2006 (10,11), implemented in Denmark 1 January 2012. The novel key point representing a major tightening compared with previous Danish legislation is that occurrence of two or more yearly episodes of severe hypoglycemia disqualifies the patient from obtaining and maintaining a driver’s license. Prior to implementation, these new rules were widely debated in the diabetic community and the public media, as they were claimed to represent a threat toward driver’s licensing for many type 1 diabetic patients. Thus Danish surveys have consistently reported a proportion of type 1 diabetic patients reporting at least two episodes per year of 20% (12,13). This corresponds to ∼6,000 Danish patients with endangered driver’s licensing. Such patients facing the risk of losing their driver’s license may be discouraged to inform their health care providers about severe hypoglycemia.

The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that implementation of the novel European Union (EU) legislation on driver’s licensing is followed by reduced reporting of severe hypoglycemia in a routine clinical care setting. A further purpose was to compare clinic reporting to that in a study setting in which patients are aware of data anonymization.

The study was a retrospective cohort study and was approved by the Committee on Biomedical Ethics of the Copenhagen Capital Region (H-4–2011–043). A total of 416 consecutive adult patients with type 1 diabetes for more than 1 year attending the outpatient clinic at Nordsjællands University Hospital Hillerød were invited to participate in the study. Following written informed consent, 309 patients (74.3%) were willing to participate. Type 1 diabetes was defined by insulin treatment from the time of diagnosis and unstimulated C-peptide less than 300 pmol/L or stimulated (venous blood glucose concentration >12 mmol/L) C-peptide less than 600 pmol/L. Pregnant women and subjects suffering from severe concomitant disease were excluded from participation. Baseline clinical data were extracted from the medical records, and random C-peptide concentration was measured as previously reported (14). Hypoglycemia awareness was self-estimated by a validated method (14) that is recommended in the Danish guidelines for treatment of type 1 diabetes issued by the National Board of Health (15).

Patients were recruited for participation in a cross-sectional survey from November 2011 to May 2013 and completed a questionnaire composed of validated questions on hypoglycemia after ensuring a common understanding of the questions and definitions used (12). The patients were informed that the data remain confidential and anonymized following incorporation into a database according to Danish data legislation. The core question was “How many episodes of severe hypoglycemia needing treatment assistance from another person have you had during the last year?” This definition of severe hypoglycemia is in accordance with the recommendations by the American Diabetes Association Workgroup on Hypoglycemia (16) and the recall within 1 year is well preserved and proven valid (14). Subsequently, medical records were scrutinized for occurrence of severe hypoglycemia in the 2 years before (2010 and 2011) and the year following (2012) implementation of EU regulations on driver’s licensing. Outpatient clinic data on severe hypoglycemia has been systematically collected (consistently using the same definition as above) at each 3- to 4-monthly visit during the last decade. The question posed to the patient as an integrated part of the consultation is “How many episodes of severe hypoglycemia needing treatment assistance from another person have you had since your last visit?” The number is documented on the diabetes summary chart. This practice has not been subject to changes during the study period. Mean HbA1c level and insulin regimen and dose were also extracted for each of the calendar years: 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Statistics

The sample size was aimed to be in the range of that of previous studies of severe hypoglycemia in cohorts of type 1 diabetic patients yielding robust results (14,1720). Rates of severe hypoglycemia are given as mean (range). Other values shown in the text and tables are mean (SD) or n (%). Data coverage for each year is calculated as percentage of the year covered by valid data. Yearly rates of severe hypoglycemia are corrected for data completeness. Standard descriptive and comparative statistics are used as appropriate. Rates of severe hypoglycemia are compared by Wilcoxon signed ranks test.

The baseline clinical characteristics of the participants are shown in Table 1. The proportion of subjects with risk factors for severe hypoglycemia such as hypoglycemia unawareness (13.9%) and undetectable C-peptide concentration (75.1%) are as expected in a representative random sample of patients with type 1 diabetes (12,13).

Table 1

Baseline characteristics

N 309 
Women 118 (38.2) 
Age (years) 52.4 (13.9) 
Duration of diabetes (years) 23 (14) 
Retinopathy 169 (54.7) 
Nephropathy 41 (13.3) 
BMI (kg/m225.5 (4.0) 
Hypertension 76 (24.6) 
C-peptide negative 232 (75.1) 
Hypoglycemia awareness  
 Normal 133 (43.0) 
 Impaired 130 (42.1) 
 Unaware 43 (13.9) 
 Missing 3 (1.0) 
Severe hypoglycemia (events per patient-year)  
 Mean rate 0.63 
 Range 0–15 
N 309 
Women 118 (38.2) 
Age (years) 52.4 (13.9) 
Duration of diabetes (years) 23 (14) 
Retinopathy 169 (54.7) 
Nephropathy 41 (13.3) 
BMI (kg/m225.5 (4.0) 
Hypertension 76 (24.6) 
C-peptide negative 232 (75.1) 
Hypoglycemia awareness  
 Normal 133 (43.0) 
 Impaired 130 (42.1) 
 Unaware 43 (13.9) 
 Missing 3 (1.0) 
Severe hypoglycemia (events per patient-year)  
 Mean rate 0.63 
 Range 0–15 

Data are presented as mean (SD) or n (%) unless otherwise indicated.

From a mean yearly rate of severe hypoglycemic events in the medical records of 0.42 (0–6.5) events per patient-year in 2010 to 2011, the rate in 2012 was reduced by 55% to 0.19 (0–5) events per patient-year (P = 0.034) (Table 2 and Fig. 1). This was predominantly due to a 73% relative reduction in the proportion of subjects reporting recurrent (two or more) episodes (absolute reduction from 5.6 to 1.5% [P = 0.014]), whereas the number of subjects reporting solitary episodes within each calendar year was not significantly reduced (P = 0.88) (Fig. 2). There was no difference in reporting patterns between the sexes, and the decline in reporting was not associated with age or with hypoglycemia awareness class (not shown).

Table 2

Temporal development in rates of severe hypoglycemia as indicated in medical records, HbA1c levels, and insulin treatment regimens

Year
201020112012
Data coverage (%) 81.7 65.4 66.1 
Severe hypoglycemia    
 Mean rate per patient-year 0.36 0.47 0.19 
 Range 0–7 0–11 0–5 
Insulin doses (IU/day) 51.2 (22.0) 49.8 (21.9) 49.5 (22.1) 
Insulin regimen    
 Analog basal-bolus 113 (36.6) 125 (40.5) 128 (41.4) 
 Human basal-bolus 48 (15.5) 46 (14.9) 41 (13.3) 
 Mixed basal-bolus 55 (17.8) 48 (15.5) 55 (17.8) 
 CSII 28 (9.1) 38 (12.3) 49 (15.9) 
 Other 65 (21.0) 52 (16.8) 36 (11.6) 
HbA1c (%) 8.0 (1.1) 7.8 (1.1) 7.7 (1.0) 
HbA1c (mmol/mol) 64 (12) 62 (12) 61 (11) 
Year
201020112012
Data coverage (%) 81.7 65.4 66.1 
Severe hypoglycemia    
 Mean rate per patient-year 0.36 0.47 0.19 
 Range 0–7 0–11 0–5 
Insulin doses (IU/day) 51.2 (22.0) 49.8 (21.9) 49.5 (22.1) 
Insulin regimen    
 Analog basal-bolus 113 (36.6) 125 (40.5) 128 (41.4) 
 Human basal-bolus 48 (15.5) 46 (14.9) 41 (13.3) 
 Mixed basal-bolus 55 (17.8) 48 (15.5) 55 (17.8) 
 CSII 28 (9.1) 38 (12.3) 49 (15.9) 
 Other 65 (21.0) 52 (16.8) 36 (11.6) 
HbA1c (%) 8.0 (1.1) 7.8 (1.1) 7.7 (1.0) 
HbA1c (mmol/mol) 64 (12) 62 (12) 61 (11) 

Data are presented as mean (SD) or n (%) unless otherwise indicated.

Figure 1

Mean annual rates of severe hypoglycemia obtained in an anonymous questionnaire survey and from medical records before and after the 1 January 2012 implementation of new EU legislation on driver’s licensing in Denmark.

Figure 1

Mean annual rates of severe hypoglycemia obtained in an anonymous questionnaire survey and from medical records before and after the 1 January 2012 implementation of new EU legislation on driver’s licensing in Denmark.

Figure 2

Proportion of patients with solitary and recurrent (two or more) episodes of severe hypoglycemia in an anonymous questionnaire (left columns) and as documented in the medical records in 2010, 2011, and 2012. SH, severe hypoglycemia.

Figure 2

Proportion of patients with solitary and recurrent (two or more) episodes of severe hypoglycemia in an anonymous questionnaire (left columns) and as documented in the medical records in 2010, 2011, and 2012. SH, severe hypoglycemia.

The mean HbA1c level of 8.0% (1.1) (64 [12] mmol/mol) in 2010 was reduced to 7.7% (1.0) (61 [11] mmol/mol) in 2012 (P = 0.035) (Table 2). There was a significant reduction of data coverage from 2010 to 2011 (P < 0.001), but no difference between 2011 and 2012 (Table 2). A number of patients were transferred to insulin analogs, and the number of patients on continuous subcutaneous insulin infusion (CSII) increased from 28 to 49 (P = 0.014) (Table 2). Exclusion of subjects commencing CSII therapy did not affect the annually reported rates of severe hypoglycemia significantly.

The rate of 0.19 (0–5) episodes per patient-year reported in the medical records in 2012 was 70% lower than the annual rate of severe hypoglycemia of 0.63 (0–15) episodes per patient-year obtained in the questionnaire survey (P < 0.001) (Fig. 1). The main reason for this difference is a more than sevenfold higher proportion of subjects reporting recurrent episodes in the questionnaire (11.4 vs. 1.5%; P = 0.0046) (Fig. 2). There was no difference between the proportions reporting solitary events (P = 0.48). The difference between study reporting and clinic reporting was not associated with sex, age, or awareness class (not shown).

This study demonstrates an immediate halving in reporting of severe hypoglycemia in a routine clinical setting following implementation of new EU regulations on driver’s licensing. The reduction was not explained by relaxation of metabolic control or by any specific intervention in the cohort, and therefore, it is probably not a true rate reduction. This is further supported by the fact that the rate of severe hypoglycemia in the general type 1 diabetic population has only declined marginally during the past decades despite the introduction of a range of new therapeutic measures (1214,1720). The reduction was primarily due to a pronounced decline in the proportion of patients reporting recurrent events. This is noteworthy because a key operational point in the new EU regulations is that occurrence of two or more episodes of severe hypoglycemia within 12 months imposes withdrawal of driver’s licensing (10,11). This particular issue has been heavily debated in the mass media, with major contributions from the Danish Diabetes Association, and is presumably common knowledge to all patients with diabetes. In accordance, a recent Danish survey exploring the reluctance to report severe hypoglycemia by patients with type 1 diabetes reported that more than one-third of patients holding a driver’s license—in particular, those prone to severe hypoglycemia—would consider keeping the episodes for themselves if their license would be endangered by reporting (21).

Anonymous reporting may encourage some patients to report more accurate numbers of events. This was apparent by a threefold higher rate of severe hypoglycemia in the questionnaire survey when compared with that retrieved from the medical records. Again, the difference was almost exclusively due to different reporting of recurrent episodes. A previous large Danish anonymous survey in 2006 (13) included 500 consecutive patients from our clinic with clinical characteristics comparable to those of the actual cohort and yielded a rate of severe hypoglycemia of 0.86 episodes per patient-year (unpublished data from Kristensen et al. [13]), thus somewhat higher compared with the 0.63 episodes per patient-year in this study. The difference may be accounted for by systematic efforts in the clinic to reduce the rate, but a bias introduced by the driver’s licensing legislation on willingness to participate in a survey on hypoglycemia or on reporting—although anonymous—cannot be excluded. Finally, even patients’ own anonymous estimates in studies may be subject to underreporting, as rates of severe hypoglycemia obtained from spouses are often significantly higher than those reported by the patients (22,23).

The study is strengthened by the thorough routine collection of hypoglycemic data in this clinic but, on the other hand, limited by not having a true prospective design. A reluctance to ask about and document severe hypoglycemia may include some health care professionals due to a misunderstood empathy for the patients. The potential impact of the latter cannot be estimated from the study, but the fact that data completeness was similar in 2011 and 2012 is argument against a major contribution. The clinical characteristics of the participants and the rate of severe hypoglycemia in our clinic obtained under similar study conditions are comparable to those of other clinics (12,13), and consequently, the results are likely to be generalizable.

The study shows that the estimated proportion of concealed severe hypoglycemia has now grown to approximately two-thirds of all episodes. There are several potential risks of such a burden of hidden severe hypoglycemia. At the individual patient level, this precludes from rational intervention against recurrent severe hypoglycemia. Facing a patient with recurrent severe hypoglycemia, a number of specific interventions may be considered: lifestyle intervention, including snacking and intensified self-monitoring; relaxation of glycemic target; changing insulin regimen; optimizing the use of bolus insulin, including carbohydrate counting; specific interventions for improvement of hypoglycemia awareness; and use of technology in terms of CSII and/or continuous glucose monitoring (2427). By not being offered these opportunities, the patient may remain at continued risk of recurrent severe hypoglycemia and its consequences in terms of risk of accidents and reduced quality of life (1).

As for the society, incremental concealed severe hypoglycemia may increase the risk of hypoglycemia-related traffic accidents. This may in fact be an unintended paradoxical result of the EU legislation as it stands. According to several surveys, ∼20% of all type 1 diabetic patients will at a given time be at danger of revoked driver’s license (12,13). A reanalysis of data from the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT)—which specifically excluded subjects with recurrent severe hypoglycemia—estimated that up to 30% of the participants would have had their license revoked at some time during the trial (28). Thus a very large proportion of patients with type 1 diabetes faces the risk of further stigmatization and may be tempted not to report recurrent severe hypoglycemia to their health care providers. For the benefit of the treatment of type 1 diabetes as well as traffic safety, it can be argued that granting of driver’s licensing should rely more on an individual risk assessment, as also recommended by the American Diabetes Association (2), including a documentation of proper self-care (self-monitoring and snacking) when driving, rather than operate on reported occurrence of severe hypoglycemia that is not a valid measure when the driver’s license is endangered.

In conclusion, rates of severe hypoglycemia reported by patients with type 1 diabetes in routine clinical practice are immediately halved following implementation of the new EU directive on driver’s licensing. We acknowledge the importance of legislation on driver’s licensing because hypoglycemia impairs driving capacity (47). However, the recently altered Danish legislation seems to impose a threat against maintenance of the physician-patient relationship necessary to improve long-term outcomes. Information about severe hypoglycemia in medical records only represent the tip of the iceberg, and it is therefore of utmost importance to improve the dialogue with the patients about this major clinical problem and its prevention.

A slide set summarizing this article is available online.

L.F. is currently affiliated with Novo Nordisk.

Acknowledgments. The authors thank research nurses Tove Larsen, Pernille Banck, and Charlotte Hansen, Department of Cardiology, Nephrology, and Endocrinology, Nordsjællands University Hospital Hillerød, for data collection and management.

Funding. The study was funded by a grant from the Research Foundation of Nordsjællands University Hospital Hillerød, the Beckett Foundation, and the Foundation of Captain Lieutenant Harald Jensen and Wife. B.T. received core funding from Nordsjællands University Hospital Hillerød.

Duality of Interest. U.P.-B. served on advisory boards for AstraZeneca/Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novo Nordisk and received lecture fees from AstraZeneca/Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sanofi Aventis, and Novo Nordisk. L.F. is now employed by Novo Nordisk. B.T. served on advisory boards for Eli Lilly. No other potential conflicts of interest relevant to this article were reported.

Author Contributions. U.P.-B. initiated and designed the study, performed the data analysis, and drafted the first version of the manuscript. L.F. initiated and designed the study and participated in the collection of data. M.-L.A. and R.A. participated in the collection of data. B.T. initiated and designed the study. All authors have contributed to, read, and approved the final manuscript. U.P.-B. is the guarantor of this work and, as such, had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Prior Presentation. Parts of this study were presented at the 74th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association, San Francisco, CA, 13–17 June 2014.

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Supplementary data