Call to take dementia patients off ‘chemical cosh’

Four out of five dementia patients are wrongly being given “chemical cosh” drugs, leading health bodies have warned.

A coalition of 50 groups including the Department of Health, four Royal Colleges and charities is calling for all elderly people currently being subdued with anti-psychotics to have their prescriptions reviewed within a year.

The experts warn that the drugs, often given to keep care home residents quiet, can worsen their symptoms and increase the risk of stroke and early death.

Paul Burstow, the Care Services Minister, said: “It is unacceptable that 1,800 people with dementia die prematurely every year as a result of anti-psychotic medication.”

Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “It is essential we bring an end to this chemical cosh and empower people with dementia and carers with the information they need to ensure they are not prescribed these drugs inappropriately.”

According to NHS guidelines, anti-psychotic drugs should only be given as last resort for people with dementia – the degenerative condition that affects some 750,000 people in Britain – who are in severe distress or at risk of harming themselves or others.

However they are over-prescribed and given for long periods of time to control agitated behaviour or aggression, and it is estimated that up to 144,000 of the 180,000 prescriptions given to people with dementia are “inappropriate”.

The Dementia Action Alliance, made up of 50 prominent health and social care organisations, is calling for all these prescriptions to be reviewed by March next year and alternative treatment considered.

Dr Clare Gerada, Chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Dealing with very agitated or aggressive patients can be distressing, and it can be difficult knowing what to do for the best of the patient, but antipsychotics should in most cases only be used as a last resort, and for the short-term.

“Anti-psychotics have potential to do real harm to patients, including an increased risk of stroke. There are viable alternatives – including behavioural therapies – that we should encourage wherever possible to ensure the care our patients receive is appropriate, in their best interests and does not cause them harm.”