Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Dementia drug use 'killing many'

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Elderly man
Anti-psychotic drugs do not benefit many dementia patients

Needless use of anti-psychotic drugs is widespread in dementia care and contributes to the death of many patients, an official review suggests.

About 180,000 patients a year are given the drugs in care homes, hospitals and their own homes to manage aggression.

But the expert review - commissioned by ministers - said the treatment was unnecessary in nearly 150,000 cases and was linked to 1,800 deaths.

The government in England has agreed to take steps to reduce use of the drugs.

These include:

  • Improving access to other types of therapy, such as counselling
  • Better monitoring of prescribing practices
  • Guidance for families explaining what they can do if they are worried about drug use
  • Specialist training in dementia for health and social care staff
  • Appointment of a new national director for dementia to oversee the measures

The review - and the government pledge to take action - comes after long-running concerns about the use of anti-psychotic drugs.

Over the past 30 years, the NHS has increasingly turned to the treatment, which was originally aimed at people with schizophrenia, as it has struggled to cope with the rise in people with dementia.

'Different mindset'

There are currently 700,000 people in the UK with the condition, but this is expected to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population.

The review, led by King's College London expert Professor Sube Banerjee, accepted that for some people anti-psychotic drugs would be necessary.

But it said they should be used only for a maximum of three months and when the person represented a risk to themselves or others.

Professor Banerjee estimated that of the 180,000 people given the drugs each year, only 36,000 benefited.

He said health and social care services needed to develop a "different mindset".

Allan Trueman's father "became a totally different person"

He believes if the steps the government has agreed to are followed, anti-psychotic drug use could be reduced by two-thirds within three years.

Care services minister Phil Hope agreed action was needed.

"We know there are situations where anti-psychotic drug use is necessary - we're not calling for a ban, but we do want to see a significant reduction in use."

Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said the long-awaited review was a welcome recognition of the scale of the problem.

He added: "This goes beyond quality of care. It is a fundamental rights issue.

"Our members tell us of enormous worry and distress over what is happening to their loved ones."

The Royal College of GPs - in most cases the drugs are prescribed by family doctors - admitted the situation was "unacceptable".

President Dr Steve Field said: "People deserve much better."

While the review was commissioned by the government in England, ministers elsewhere in the UK have agreed to study the recommendations.

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