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Minister alarmed by dementia treatment

Original source:

The Australian
Joe Kelly
August 17, 2012

Federal Aged Care Minister Mark Butler has expressed concern about the growing use of antipsychotic drugs to manage the behaviour of dementia sufferers in aged-care facilities.

Mr Butler said last night he would look at ways in which the government could improve such "prescription behaviour, particularly relating to the use of anti-psychotics".

He made the comments on the ABC's Lateline, which broadcast concerns that up to 6000 elderly people could be dying prematurely each year because of the over-prescription of antipsychotic drugs to dementia sufferers. Mr Butler acknowledged that if the use of prescription drugs had contributed to the premature deaths of a similar number of younger people, it was likely there would be a royal commission.

"I think that's right," he said.

"I think that's a symptom of the lack of profile that dementia has historically had as a very, very serious condition."

The program highlighted the 2006 case of John Burns, who was admitted at the age of 63 to an Adelaide nursing home suffering from dementia and exhibiting uninhibited sexual behaviour. Within 12 days he was dead.

At the coronial hearing into Mr Burns' death, leading geriatric expert Barclay Whitehead said he believed Mr Burns was subject to excessive doses of the powerful anti-psychotic drug Haloperidol.

"I think he had about 35 milligrams. I would ordinarily give, in that circumstance, at best five orally," Dr Whitehead said.

Lateline reported that Mr Burns was given 45 milligrams in addition to other anti-psychotics and sedatives.

The South Australian Coroner, Mark Johns, found last year that Mr Burns died of a stroke in 2006. But he noted Dr Whitehead's concerns that Haloperidol may have played a role.

"I thought it was a really important example of how these medications we give to people with dementia, a very common problem, and behavioural disturbance in dementia is a very common problem, have serious and high-risk effects," he said.

Dr Whitehead then expressed concern at whether staff were adequately trained to care for the 140,000 dementia patients who are increasingly dominating residential care facilities and are forecast to grow rapidly in coming years. "I think there is a sense that the aged care industry is less tolerant to patients with behavioural disturbance," he said.

Mr Butler said the government had taken action to prioritise dementia and lift its profile in the community, describing it as a "major health challenge".