Are Dungannon dementia patients slipping through the net?

editorial image

Significant gaps in the care of Dungannon District’s dementia sufferers have been laid bare by a newly published interactive map.

Compiled by the news website The Detail, the map shows the number of patients in each local GP practice aged over 45, the number of patients diagnosed with dementia, and the rate of diagnoses per 1,000 of the population.

In all, there are currently 377 people diagnosed with dementia in the Dungannon District.

However, in some local GP surgeries the rate of diagnosis is as much as three times higher than the lowest.

The figures reveal that across Northern Ireland as a whole 16 patients per 1,000 aged 45 or over are listed by their GP as having some form of dementia.

While some Dungannon and Coalisland practices are well above the Northern Ireland rate, others have few patients diagnosed with the disease, adding weight to the fear that patients are not being diagnosed and are therefore living without treatment.

The highest rate of diagnosis per 1000 patients among the district’s 15 practices stood at 29, while the lowest was just 8.

There are a total of 9 local practices, more than half, where the number of people registered with dementia is below the Northern Ireland diagnosis rate.

The Department of Health has warned that people with dementia are missing out on care because their conditions are going undiagnosed by GPs.

Many older people and their families attribute symptoms to ‘old age’ and do not seek GP help for dementia.

But there are also cases of people in their 30s and 40s with dementia who slip through the net because GPs confuse their symptoms with those of depression, according to the department.

Fewer than half of people living with dementia have a diagnosis, official figures show, and the rate has improved only slightly - from 46 per cent to 48 per cent - over the last two years.

And the numbers of people with dementia is expected to rise sharply in the coming years as the proportion of older people in the population rises.

Dementia is a disease that normally affects older members of the population and symptoms can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.

Northern Ireland health experts have attributed the disparity in diagnosis to a lack of specialist services in some areas, as well as a failure of some GPs to make appropriate referrals. But doctors’ representatives have said the stigma around dementia could also be preventing people from seeking a formal diagnosis.

Dr John O’Kelly, chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, acknowledged the “increasing challenge” of diagnosing and caring for people with dementia.

“Symptoms are often non specific and present slowly and gradually. Often patients have multiple co-morbidities that can cloud the picture,” he said.

“The map showing variation in the rates of diagnosis of dementia is interesting and difficult to explain. It would suggest that further research is required to establish the reasons. Certainly good and timely access to appropriate secondary services is essential.”