Flawed commissioning of healthcare “is getting in the way tackling dementia,” according to a new study.

The report, published this week by the Social Market Foundation and entitled ‘A Future State of Mind’, looks at why the UK has such poor dementia diagnosis rates by international standards.

It does this through a series of in-depth interviews with Alzheimer’s patients and their carers, and an analysis of the barriers to diagnosis on the practitioner side.

This study, which was funded by Lilly UK, concludes that barriers to early diagnosis are complex and multifaceted, stemming both from patients’ own fears and reluctance to seek diagnosis, and from clinicians’ lack of time, confidence or training.

The SMF says this is exacerbated by current commissioning systems that reward static processes, like requiring GPs to keep a register of dementia patients. “These are ineffective in tackling England’s patchy performance, as they provide no incentives for diagnosis,” the authors say.

Instead, the report argues, all healthcare commissioners in an area should be financially rewarded for the same thing: achieving increased numbers of diagnoses. As well as bringing benefits to patients, this change would open up opportunities to save money in the NHS and social care.

The study also says that commissioners should be encouraged to seek external finance to fund innovative and experimental activities that will increase diagnosis in their area, for example, through social impact bonds.

Nigel Keohane, SMF deputy director and co-author of the report, said: “While there is no cure for dementia, early diagnosis means that patients can access treatment and support, allowing them and their families to prepare for the future progress of the condition. Early diagnosis also makes sense from a fiscal perspective: the current cost of dementia to the UK is estimated to be £23 billion per year and this is set to rise as the population ages. Costs to the state can be reduced if diagnosis happens earlier.

“But incentives within the system are currently not set up to lead practitioners to invest in improved diagnosis rates. Our study shows that there may be a multitude of different reasons for dementia not being diagnosed early: patients may be unable to distinguish between the signs of dementia and the ageing process, they may be in denial or fearful of seeking treatment, or practitioners may be too busy or lacking in knowledge of the condition to diagnose them.

“That’s why incentives for GPs, clinical commissioning groups and directors of public health should be directly linked to increased diagnosis rates, and practitioners should be free to innovate. Allowing commissioners to tailor solutions to what works for patients and their local population is the best way to achieve this, rather than focusing rewards on inflexible and rigid processes.”

The SMF’s interviews with Alzheimer’s patients and their carers revealed common barriers that often prevented people seeking medical advice until triggered by a crisis, such as being lost, injured or in danger.

The report found that common barriers included lack of knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease and the closeness of its symptoms to those associated with ageing.