A study by the Imperial College London has revealed that dementia patients are facing unnecessary delays in receiving a diagnosis for dementia at some memory clinics. The delays result from complex and restrictive access criteria to the clinics, according to doctors.
Around 850,000 people in Britain suffer from dementia with the number increasing due to an aging population. About a third have not yet had a formal diagnosis which means they are not receiving much needed support. Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there are exercises that can help delay its progression and a number of emerging treatments are in the pipeline. Should those prove successful, early diagnosis will be the key to effective treatment.
Diagnosis of dementia is made through memory and language tests. These are performed at over 200 clinics across the UK. However, the access criteria can make it difficult for GPs to refer patients. Some clinics will allow patients to refer themselves, but others require GPs to first conduct a whole range of blood, urine and other tests to ensure that the symptoms do not result from another condition.
Some clinics, for example, require that older patients are tested for syphilis before they will assess them for dementia, to rule out that infection was causing the delirium experienced by the patient. Dr Benedict Hayhoe, who carried out the study, said that this test was inappropriate for the majority of older patients.
Dr Hayhoe noted that there is potential for significant delays – resulting from patients who are already forgetful requiring multiple appointments with their GP. He believes clinics should be less rigid with their requirements, calling any system that delays or discourages referral for dementia “highly counterproductive”.
However, clinics say they are overwhelmed by those who are anxious they have the disease because they experience normal absent mindedness that is associated with old age. Further, more than 50 conditions mimic the symptoms of dementia with vitamin B12 deficiency, depression, hydrocephalus (water on the brain), tumours, subdural hematomas, thyroid disease and alcoholism amongst them. GPs are typically limited to a ten minute appointment slot which does not allow them to carry out full testing – and Dr Hayhoe suggests nurses could be trained to make a provisional diagnosis instead. He believes that if practice nurses carried out assessments, this would not only speed up the referral process of patients genuinely in need, but would also reduce pressure on GPs.
If you are suffering from memory problems and a diagnosis of dementia is suspected, it is advisable to put your legal and financial affairs in order while you still have mental capacity. Dementia affects everyone differently and for some it can progress very quickly. As a minimum, you should make a Will and both types of Lasting Power of Attorney. This will allow someone you trust to help you with your finances and make decisions as to your care, should you be unable to make these yourself. Get in touch with our Later Life Planning department for more information.