Diagnosing dementia: the gateway to better care

The news today that the UK government is set to launch a ‘national challenge on dementia’ and double funding for research to £66m is encouraging but ultimately a small drop in the ocean.

This often neglected illness is thought to affect around 800,000 people within the UK at an estimated annual cost of £23bn to society (Alzheimer’s Research UK). These figures, while high, can never capture the personal cost to the friends and families of patients who often bear much of this burden in silence.

The Design Council and Department of Health are currently looking at ways in which good design can improve the lives of patients are carers suffering with this disease. Partnering charities with design consultancies, they aim to create products and services to make both patients and carers lives easier, better planned and ultimately more enjoyable. The proposed solutions are wide-ranging and innovative but fail to tackle one of the biggest challenges surrounding cognitive decline in the UK – early diagnosis.

Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted as saying that “the level of diagnosis, understanding and awareness of dementia is shockingly low. It is as though we as a country have been in collective denial”.

The 2004 Facing Dementia Survey gathered data from various groups across six European countries and found that the time taken to diagnose Alzheimer’s, after symptoms were first noticed, was considerably longer in the UK (32 months) than in France (24), Spain (18), Italy (14) and Germany (10). In fact the UK ranks in the bottom third of all European countries when it comes to diagnosing the condition. A 2007 National Audit Office report found that only 58% of GP’s questioned felt confident in their ability to make a diagnosis of dementia. This highlights a worrying trend; in 2004 the number was 64% when asked the same question.

Ultimately diagnosis is the gateway for care. Without it no drug or non-drug based treatment can be given, no well-designed products or services can be accessed, and the effective forward planning and interventions with the ability to extend and enhance lives cannot be put into place.

This is a growing problem; globally there is a new case of dementia every seven seconds. This morning’s announcement of additional funding, coupled with an initiative from the Design Council are welcome steps in the right direction. However, until we can address the challenge posed by effective early diagnosis, the benefits offered by these potentially life-changing services and products will be limited.

Living well with dementia (courtesy of Design Council UK):

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