Canadians with diabetes tend to underestimate the life-threatening impact of the disease, a national study has found.

They worry about the wrong health risks.

Diabetics’ biggest concerns should be kidney and heart complications. Instead, they wrongly fear blindness, amputation or erectile dysfunction, the survey found.

This misunderstanding is "quite concerning," said Dr. Richard Tytus, a family physician in Hamilton and professor at McMaster University.

"The reality is that you won't need to worry about being blind if your heart stops beating or your kidneys shut down."

Tytus contributed to the design of the survey, which was conducted by a marketing research company in partnership with two pharmaceutical companies and the Kidney Foundation of Canada.

The study asked 760 patients with diabetes and 301 physicians which health complications of diabetes are their greatest concerns.

Patients don’t have a clear understanding of what matters most — kidney health. And they’re not having the right conversations with their doctors.

Most physicians say they warn patients of kidney and heart complications, Tytus said. "But when you ask the patient the same question they go, ‘well, maybe, yeah.’ So there’s a disconnect."

"What should be foremost on [patients’] minds should not be, ‘do I have erectile dysfunction?" Tytus said. "But, ‘what can I do to help or improve my kidney function?’"

Kidney health should be patients’ biggest concern.

** A call to action in Hamilton **

"Diabetes is becoming an epidemic in Canada," Tytus said.

Almost three million Canadians have diabetes. Half of patients with Type 2 diabetes contract kidney disease.

Tytus, who has been a family physician in Hamilton for about 25 years, believes Hamiltonians may be at an even greater risk for diabetes, when factoring in smoking and obesity rates.

Seventeen per cent of Canadians smoke, Tytus said. "But in Hamilton it’s 23 per cent and in downtown Hamilton, in my practice, it’s about 30 per cent."

"Smoking increases your risk of diabetes."

About 40,000 Hamiltonians already have diabetes, Tytus said. "I think that we would probably be a little bit higher [than national rates]," because of obesity levels in Hamilton, he said.

More than 60 per cent of people in Hamilton are overweight or obese, the doctor said.

"This survey was a call to action," Tytus said, "We need to empower [diabetes] patients to focus on their kidney health."

It's important that diabetes patients follow a healthy lifestyle, have their urine, blood and blood pressure checked regularly, and ask their doctor thorough questions about the treatment of diabetes, he advised.

The national survey was conducted by market research company, Vision Critical, in partnership with The Kidney Foundation of Canada and pharmaceutical companies Boehringer Ingelheim Canada Ltd. and Eli Lilly Canada.