Disparity in dementia diagnosis across Northern Ireland

Figures mapping out where people have been diagnosed with dementia throughout Northern Ireland have identified gaps where many may be going untreated.

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. Photograph: Thinkstock

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. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jun 17, 2014, 12:33

Government data drawn from every GP practice in Northern Ireland has been analysed by the Belfast-based news and analysis website The Detail, showing a wide variation in the number of people diagnosed with dementia. The figures show 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 practices are well above the Northern Ireland rate, others have very few, or no patients at all diagnosed with the disease, adding weight to the fear that thousands with the condition are not being diagnosed and are therefore living without treatment.

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. This is the first time the official data has been presented in this way for Northern Ireland. Experts have attributed the disparity in diagnosis to a lack of specialist services in some areas, as well as a failure by some GPs to make appropriate referrals. But the Royal College of GPs has said a stigma around dementia could also be preventing people from seeking a formal diagnosis.

Reacting to the figures, one of the Northern Ireland health service’s leading officials in dementia care said the research should be a motivating factor to improve diagnosis rates. Seamus McErlean is the commissioning lead for Older People and Adult Services at the Health and Social Care Board. He believes the key is assuring people that there is an infrastructure there to support people after a dementia diagnosis. Mr McErlean said: "We have to start the conversation now and it’s about encouraging people to come forward and talk to their GPs if they have fear or concerns about their memory. Part of that is also about ensuring people that we have the infrastructure there to help them if they do get a diagnosis.

“The figures contained in the map are useful and if anything I think it spurs us on to reach those who do not have a diagnosis. Certainly it will be interesting a few years down the line to revisit these figures because I believe we are making strides in terms of diagnosis.”

Through its Qualities and Outcomes Framework (QOF) data, the government keeps a complete list of everyone in Northern Ireland registered with a GP who has been diagnosed with dementia. It takes into account all people diagnosed with dementia either directly by a GP or through referral to secondary care.

The 2012/13 QOF data identifies 12,278 people diagnosed with dementia in Northern Ireland as of March 31 2013. Using this data The Detail created an interactive map showing the number of people diagnosed in each of the 351 individual GP practices throughout the north.

The website requested a separate breakdown from the Health and Social Care Board for the number of patients registered with each practice and also how many of these patients were aged 45 or over, as of January 2014. Using these figures it calculated the dementia diagnosis rate in each practice per 1,000 patients aged 45 or over. The colours on the map correlate to this calculation. The calculation shows that this ranges from 50 patients per 1,000 aged 45 or over diagnosed with dementia in practices in Antrim, to less than 10 patients in some GP practices in Fermanagh.

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