The wrong prescription

    Many older people in residential homes are spending their days
    in a drug-induced haze as the use of anti-psychotic drugs reaches
    record high levels. Ruth Winchester reports.

    For a lot of young people, getting drugged up to the eyeballs in
    search of semi-consciousness is the signature of a good weekend.
    But it’s not something you’d normally associate with the over
    sixties.

    Unfortunately, the misuse of drugs appears to be a daily reality
    for many older people, particularly those suffering from dementia
    or mental health problems in residential and nursing homes.

    Recent discussions in parliament, driven by Paul Burstow,
    Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam, have refuelled a
    long-standing debate about the use of anti-psychotic drugs to
    subdue problematic residents. Both Age Concern and the Royal
    College of Physicians have published reports in the past looking
    into the over-use of these drugs which have been dubbed “chemical
    coshes” because of their heavy sedative effects. Other side-effects
    include facial paralysis, tremors and unsteadiness, and there is
    evidence that their use on people with dementia can hasten
    cognitive decline and even death.

    Despite the concern raised by campaign groups, the medical
    profession and the press, figures released last week demonstrate
    that the amount of prescriptions for new generation anti-psychotics
    for people over 60 nearly doubled between 1999 and 2000 – up from
    252,700 to 428,800.

    Harry Cayton, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, agrees
    that these figures need to be “treated with some caution. There is
    some evidence that they indicate a switch from older [typical]
    anti-psychotics to the newer [atypical] ones, which have fewer side
    effects.”

    But he argues: “Use of these drugs on older people should be
    dropping, and that clearly isn’t happening. There’s very
    substantial evidence that these drugs are being over-prescribed,
    and given too often, at too high a dose, particularly in care
    settings where there is very little independent scrutiny of
    prescribing practice. In the United States these drugs have been
    severely restricted by law. I think they have to be used extremely
    carefully.

    “To put it bluntly, these drugs help doctors and nurses. They
    don’t help the people who are taking them, they just make them
    quieter and calmer and easier to look after. They are a substitute
    for good care – some of the best care homes hardly use them.”

    Care homes, for their part, are furious that the finger of blame
    is being pointed at them, arguing that they are not responsible for
    GPs prescribing habits and that doctors are required to carry out
    assessments before writing out prescriptions for powerful
    psychiatric drugs.

    Unfortunately, there is some evidence to suggest that this is
    not always happening. GPs are often under pressure from staff and
    managers to help them cope with a resident, particularly in cases
    where their behaviour is disturbing other people. Distressed family
    members, too, can plead with care staff and family doctors to “do
    something” to help keep someone calm and quiet. And there have been
    allegations that assessments are cursory at best. Anecdotal
    evidence suggests that there are a number of cases where GPs have
    prescribed without a full assessment – even over the telephone.

    Jim Kennedy is prescribing spokesperson for the Royal College of
    General Practitioners. He says the RCGP is “very concerned about
    the figures released by the Department of Health. We feel the
    figures need clarification as they don’t equate with our experience
    of current clinical practice.

    “Much can be done to help elderly people without resorting to
    prescribing drugs,” he adds. “Having a good level of staffing, and
    providing training as well as a good environment can all help an
    elderly person who is in an unfamiliar environment, without giving
    them a prescription.”

    But Paul Burstow suggests that both care homes and GPs need to
    take responsibility for the situation. “I’m not suggesting that
    these drugs don’t have a place – that they should never be
    prescribed. In some cases they can be very useful, for instance if
    someone is very distressed or if they are a danger to themselves.
    But I think the problem is about how high the dosages are and how
    regularly people are dosed with them. In most cases there is no
    proper review, they are used at inappropriately high levels, and
    they are used more for the convenience of managers and staff than
    for the benefit of the elderly person.”

    Burstow highlights the fact that the National Institute for
    Clinical Excellence is to produce guidelines in December on the use
    of anti-psychotics, although these are unlikely to contain specific
    recommendations relating to their use with older mentally ill
    patients.

    He says: “Firstly, we need to have tighter prescribing
    guidelines relating to these drugs. Second, we need the inspection
    and regulation of homes caring for elderly people to look at the
    way they are using these drugs – and not just to look at the
    policy, but at the practice.

    “The final thing that we need to look at is the investment in,
    and training of, staff,” Burstow adds. “Two or three months ago we
    surveyed local authority social services departments and found that
    seven out of 10 social services departments could not meet the
    demand for beds for older mentally ill patients. Six out of 10 said
    they didn’t have access to the specialist dementia care staff at
    the level to meet demand. What that tells me is that we simply
    don’t have the skilled staff necessary, and so the level of
    personal care is likely to be low.”

    Cayton agrees: “No one is saying that caring for people with
    dementia is easy – it’s not. But we should be asking ourselves how
    we could reduce the need for drugs with better care, and a lot of
    that is about ensuring that care staff get the resources and
    training they need. Drugs should always be a last resort.”

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