News & Views

Thursday 16th May 2013 09:38

Doctors told to improve dementia diagnosis rates

Last year the health secretary compared current attitudes towards dementia to the way cancer was once viewed, saying it was approached with a 'grim fatalism'.
Doctors will be set a target to diagnose another 160,000 dementia sufferers in a government drive to tackle the incurable brain condition. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, says the NHS has shockingly low dementia diagnosis rates, with 350,000 of the estimated 670,000 people with dementia unknowingly living with the condition.

Last year the health secretary compared current attitudes towards dementia to the way cancer was once viewed, saying it was approached with a "grim fatalism". He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that "as with cancer in the past, too many health and care professionals are not aware of the symptoms. Some even believe that without effective cure there's no point putting people through the anxiety of a memory test – even though drugs can help stave off the condition for several years. It is this grim fatalism that we need to shake off. Not just within our health service but across society as a whole."

The prime minister David Cameron said he was determined to use Britain's chairmanship of the G8 to forge a more co-ordinated international approach to the problem.

A summit on dementia will be held in London in September, bringing together health and science ministers, senior industry figures and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Mr Cameron said: "Dementia is a devastating disease – not just for sufferers but for their families and friends too. And as more people live longer, it is fast becoming one of the biggest social and healthcare challenges we face.

"Families, communities, health systems and their budgets will increasingly be strained as the number affected increases and so we need to do all we can to improve how we research, diagnose and treat the disease.

"That's why we're using our G8 to bring together health ministers, clinical researchers and healthcare companies. If the brightest minds are working together on this then we've got a greater chance of improving treatments and finding scientific breakthroughs.

"I've said before that we need an all-out fight-back against dementia that cuts across society. Now we need to cut across borders and spearhead an international approach that could really make a difference."

By 2015 NHS England aims to see two-thirds of people with dementia identified and given access to treatment – and intends to tackle the postcode lottery of diagnosis that has resulted in doctors in some parts of the country accepting less than a third of people with the condition as being in need of support. The health secretary will also announce that annual funding of dementia research will be increased to around £66m.

The coalition has been pushing dementia to the top of the NHS priority list, with the prime minister last year issuing a "dementia challenge". Experts say that by 2021 1 million people in the UK will be living with dementia, and not only is there is a pressing medical need but, happily for ministers, there's also the potential of reaping votes among the elderly.

In a statement Hunt said: "For too long diagnosis rates have been shockingly low, leaving too many people living in the dark trying to cope with this terrible condition undiagnosed, unable to get the help they need and deserve. Dementia is a serious and growing problem so this ambitious drive to see a clear majority of people identified and supported is a major step forward."

Meeting the government goals will be a test of the new NHS with groups of GPs - in clinical commissioning groups - having to work closely with local councils.

Jeremy Hughes, the chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, welcomed the government's announcement.

"There is surely no other condition where we would tolerate people living without treatments, without support and in the dark about what is happening to them. This is exactly what is faced by the 54% of people with dementia who never receive a diagnosis.

"This ambition from the NHS to significantly improve diagnosis rates in two years demonstrates real leadership. It is a key step in improving the lives of people with dementia."

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