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The system could increase the number of people with dementia diagnosed within a two-year period by 21%

Research will help GPs diagnose dementia more accurately

Research at the University of Exeter designed to help identify patients with dementia and reduce the pressure on health services has received a generous boost of £120,000 from the Halpin Trust.

The research aims to help GPs make a swifter and more accurate decisions around diagnosis, meaning those who are in greatest need can be progressed more swiftly.

Timely diagnosis is key to ensuring people with dementia get the right treatment and support. Although more than 800,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with dementia, many more are never diagnosed, or are diagnosed too late in the progression of the condition for any action to be effective.

Meanwhile, health services see large numbers of people who are concerned they may have dementia, but do not, meaning waiting times are rapidly increasing. Currently only four in ten people who attend Devon Memory Service clinics receive a dementia diagnosis.

Dr David Llewellyn and his team from the University of Exeter are working with Devon Partnership NHS Trust to improve dementia diagnosis. They have developed a clinical decision support system called DECODE to help identify which patients are most likely to benefit from a full dementia assessment. It will help GPs with the difficult task of assessing which patients should go on to memory clinics within the short consultations available to them.

This system could potentially increase the number of people with dementia who could be diagnosed within a two-year period by 21%. At the same time, a large proportion of cognitively healthy people could be picked up by the DECODE triage system; and these assessments could be reduced by up to 400%. 

Dr Llewellyn said: “Our vision is to develop an intelligent system that simultaneously increases the timely diagnosis of dementia and reduces referrals, benefitting both patients and the NHS.” said Dr Llewellyn.

“We are incredibly grateful to the Halpin Trust for their continued support which has made all the difference. It’s been an exciting journey so far, and initial feedback about DECODE from clinicians and patients has been very positive.”

Dr Laura Hill, Associate Clinical Director for the Devon Memory Service, who is involved in the study, said: "Getting a timely diagnosis of dementia is crucial to being able to make a difference for people.  It's not easy living with dementia but it is possible to live well with the right support and getting the diagnosis is the first step on this journey.  It is also essential that we can reassure people who are experiencing normal age-related changes that they do not have dementia as early as possible.  This research will support primary and secondary care services to achieve this goal."

The additional support for the project will enable the team to conduct vital feasibility work with GPs and memory clinics. This will determine how DECODE could be integrated into existing infrastructure, how satisfied patients and clinicians are with the system, and if any further updates are required to suit different contexts. The results will also help to understand the extent to which DECODE has the potential to improve patient outcomes and NHS efficiency.

The Halpin Trust has previously donated £100,000 to support the earlier stages of Dr Llewellyn’s work and this latest donation of £123,558 will help to take it to the next level.

Claire Halpin, a Biology graduate from the University of Exeter, founded the Halpin Trust with her late husband Les, an Exeter mathematics graduate. She said: “Les’ father suffered from dementia, so this was a subject close to his heart – and he also loved to make things work better and more efficiently. We met with Dr Llewellyn in 2010 and were both taken with his approach to dementia research and his enthusiasm. His work has come a long way since then, and it’s great to see it beginning to be put into practice. I know that Les would have been very pleased with this achievement… and looking forward to the next challenge!”

To read more about dementia research at Exeter, click here.

Date: 23 November 2017