An estimated 60% of the 800,000 patients living with dementia in the UK never receive a diagnosis, and there is huge variation in quality of services throughout the country, a report by MPs has revealed.

An investigation by the The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Dementia has found shocking variation in the time it takes to get a dementia diagnosis in the UK, with waiting times for access to memory clinics - a crucial element of the diagnostic process - ranging from a few weeks to over a year.

But even once patients get there there are huge inconsistencies in the quality of the services on offer, with people frequently receiving no information or support 

following diagnosis, leaving them isolated, it said.

Only around 40% of patients with the disease actually receive a diagnosis, with the main reasons for this being lack of public and GP awareness and the variability of memory services, the report found.

The figures also suggest considerable variation in diagnosis rates within the UK, with 41% of people with dementia in England receiving a diagnosis, 37.4% in Wales, 64.5% in Scotland and 61.5% in Northern Ireland, painting a rather poor picture for patients in terms of access to treatment and support and, ultimately, quality of life.

Financial incentive

Aside from the obvious impact to patient health, there is also solid financial imperative for boosting rates of diagnosis, as research suggests that commissioning better memory services for earlier diagnosis and intervention could actually save £245million within ten years, according to The Alzheimer's Society.

This is particularly pertinent given that the financial cost of the disease to the National Health Service, local authorities and families is a whopping £23 billion a year, and this is expected to hit £27 billion in just six years.

On the back of these findings, the APPG makes several recommendations to help improve the situation for patients. In the first instance, it calls for a "sustained public dementia awareness campaign" focusing on recognising the symptoms of dementia.

It also recommends that the ‘quantified ambition’ promised for 2013 in the Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia should be "a standalone target based on the NHS Atlas of Variation Map", and that dementia diagnosis should be included in the Commissioning Outcomes Framework.  

Compulsory training?

In addition, all health and social care professionals working in a general capacity with people at risk of dementia should have pre- and post-registration training in identifying and understanding the disease, it says.

Commenting on the report, Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive of Alzheimer's Society, noted that "through compulsory accreditation and investment in improving memory services we can help drive up rates of diagnosis and enable people with dementia to access the support they need," and he added that "by ensuring people have the support they need at the time they need it we can also save money, as fewer people will need costly and distressing crisis care".

Care Services Minister Paul Burstow agreed that the regional variation in the diagnosis rates of dementia must improve.

“Some areas are doing fantastic work but there is still too much regional variation. That is why we are driving forward measures to improve the quality of memory services, including work to increase the number of accredited memory services and work to help local commissioners map the need in their area," he stressed.

According to the Department of Health, improving diagnosis rates "is a key part of the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge", and it noted that a new campaign aimed at raising awareness of the early signs of the disease and encouraging people to see the GP is scheduled for 2012/13.