In a way, the second ever English dementia policy poses more of an acid test than the first one. The reason for this is because we already have a set of yardsticks by which the first five years can be assessed, with a view to projecting forewards.
I don’t doubt the enthusiasm with which we have tried to close the ‘diagnosis gap’ in England. The heart of this is the high quality diagnosis, as stipulated in the original policy co-authored by Prof Sube Banerjee at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. What we have tended towards, rather, is a culture of high volume mediocre quality. And people readily admit they would rather wait that little bit longer to get the correct diagnosis.
I do not subscribe to the idea that anyone can easily make a diagnosis of dementia. When a diagnosis of dementia is finally given, it’s given not just to the person with dementia, but to his or her friends, or her family. As Kate Swaffer says, she is not a person with dementia primarily; she is a person with friends, family and feelings.
This approach prioritising the person has to be right from the word go. We are all persons, but we become patients when we become ill enough to present to the health and care services or not. We become paying consumers when we part with money. We are consumers if we spend any resources from the pot of money paid into from national insurance.
And so on. This analysis of money is a sideshow only as far as to how to service is delivered is actually matters. If you have services in dementia and support commissioned in a highly piecemeal manner, at worst from clinical commissioning groups who don’t know what wellbeing is, nor what they’re looking for, it can be a mess.
The hunt is definitely on for effective commissioning as well as any commissioning at all. The next Government will have to provide much better clarity on this, and some objective guidelines on how, say, the delivery of wellbeing might be ensured on an ongoing basis, not just at the start and finish of a commissioning contract.
But it is the fragmented approach from different providers which is a threat. Low pay of carers, not meeting the national minimum wage, or zero hour contracts, is a problem, and the reason specifically why private providers can be an issue here is that large corporates with scrupulous employment practices can hide behind a veil of being unperturbed from freedom of information legislation.
It is very easy to argue that entire health policy, and even dementia policy, is not political. I don’t believe this is justifiable for a minute. How we prioritise care at all is a reflection of our collective solidarity as a society, and our success in ‘pooling risk’. If I know for example I have a high genetic risk of developing a dementia from my genetic make up, my insurance premiums is likely to go through the roof unless there is tight anti-genetic discrimination law in place in England (which there isn’t).
Having a piecemeal system promotes lack of continuity of care. I think this is fatal for any new English dementia strategy. I think this piecemeal system, whether an artefact of private markets or not, or political ideology, can adversely affect people living with dementia and carers in a number of different ways.
First of all, the caregiver relationship, whether paid or unpaid as carer, fundamentally depends on that caregiver knowing the person with dementia. The happiest relatives I have ever spoken to are the ones who report that they haven’t had a regular changing of the guard as regard carers. This is important for building meaningful relationships with time, as people with Alzheimer’s disease for much of their time, even if they have weak memories for events have strong enduring memories for emotions. Besides, change here can be very distressing, and mental distress can impact on lack of physical wellbeing (although ill being is not necessarily the same as lack of wellbeing).
Secondly, continuity of care by a physician or an appropriate specialist in clinical psychology acts as a safeguard to check the actual diagnosis is right. Some initial cognitive impairments do not progress – they remain mild. A ‘wrong diagnosis’ of dementia does not necessarily mean someone has goofed up as such – it could mean that something that was predicted to progress didn’t. The drive to diagnosing dementia, particularly with financial incentives, could mean we accidentally mislabel mild cognitive impairment as dementia, and this is clearly a tragedy for all involved.
Therefore, a diagnosis disclosure can never be a single hit and run event. There needs to be follow up from the system, whether it’s by the same GP, a hospital physician or psychiatrist, a different member of the memory clinic possibly somewhere totally different; a second ‘set of eyes’ to see whether the initial diagnosis is correct. Granted I agree that knowing what the diagnosis is can be the key to opening services, being armed with information and hence empowered, and all the usual arguments, but the diagnosis must be correct. There is no alternative on this.
Say, for example, you are in fact depressed, not living with dementia, and a clinician in a hurry informs you you are living with dementia. You have presented in response to the question, “Do you have problems with your memory?”. Such a misdiagnosis is likely to make you even more depressed; and not receiving effective treatment for depression, whether as a psychological therapy or medication, or otherwise.
Thirdly, somebody who knows a person well will be able to spot when a person with dementia changes in any way. This could be a ‘difference’, such as the development of a sweet tooth, a ‘deterioriation’ such as in memory, or even an ‘enhancement’ as in acquisition of a love of music, or artistic and creative talents. You can only ascertain this with time. This is where the idea of the review has to change fundamentally.
I don’t feel this review should take place in the hands of medics who repeat scans and tests, ask a few random questions, and document the decline (as dementia is progressive if it is not ‘reversible’ such as vitamin deficiency). Implementation of a ‘year of care’ for dementia, or a national network of clinical specialist nurses, will be able to manage a caseload of individuals living well in a pro-active fashion, each with an individualised care plan; where the goal is to live well, not to firefight in a crisis.
Fourthly, the fundamental crunch time for a person living with dementia is an inability to retain information for a decision, an inability to make that decision, and an inability to communicate that decision. The starting point is that we can make decisions or have ‘capacity’. This capacity can come or go; and it’s dangerous if we get into the mindset that capacity is all or nothing, but that is the legal shortcut we have in place.
But this capacity needs review on a regular basis, as it fundamentally changes our view as to whether a person can consent or not. People living with diffuse lewy body dementia, for example, can notice themselves one day they’re performing quite well, other days not so well. If we don’t get into the good practice of reviewing capacity and consent on a regular basis, through continuity of care, we will easily arrive at a situation where people are languishing inappropriately on medications. It’s generally felt that, while appropriate for some, antipsychotics prescribing is too high, often inappropriately; some side effects such as drooling of the mouth can be very distressing. It’s currently, rightly, a plank of policy to address the inappropriate prescription of antipsychotics particularly in care homes.
In summary, the ideal would be somebody to accompany a person from the point of diagnosis to the time of end of life; not chopping and changing. I was told by a senior specialist nurse at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Katy Judd, that one of the most disturbing phenomena for persons with dementia and families is when their ‘contacts’ have ‘moved on’ on such a frequent basis. There clearly needs to be proper signposting with the system, known as care coordinators, but we need to avoid the situation where there is an abundance of signposts and a dearth of frontline care.
But I feel fundamentally continuity of care and support is critical. Having the same mutual followers on a social network on Twitter has the potential to improve wellbeing, and having somebody there by you that you trust is likely to have the same effect. People living with dementia who are stimulated psychologically by positive experiences are likely to find their experience fundamentally of a different nature to those who don’t.
For these reasons I feel that, whatever tactics are used, and whichever government is in office and/or power in England, for the next few years, an overall strategy of prioritising the continuity of care is pivotal.