I was shocked to hear on BBC Radio Kent yesterday morning the story of an 80-year-old dementia patient who had been badly treated on a Kent hospital ward after breaking her hip. The patient was left on a trolley in excruciating pain and in desperate need of the toilet for over five hours before she was finally seen by a doctor. While this story is both heartbreaking and shocking, what is even more outrageous is the fact that stories of dementia patients receiving poor treatment on hospital wards are not uncommon.
At any one time, up to a quarter of hospital beds are occupied by dementia patients over the age of 65, yet studies by the National Audit Office suggest that two-thirds of these patients no longer needed to be there. While this costs almost £6.5 million which could otherwise be invested in other NHS and care services, I am concerned that the hospital ward is an unsuitable care setting for people with dementia. Those with dementia in hospitals are more prone to complications such as delirium, infection and falls. Worryingly, hospital care can also exacerbate the symptoms of dementia and have a negative impact on their condition as the institutional and disempowering environment of hospitals upsets patients’ routines.
As Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dementia, myself and other colleagues have been in the position to hear from charities which do excellent work supporting those with Dementia, such as Age UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, on ways in which we can limit the negative impact of hospital care for dementia patients.
Relatively simple changes to the hospital environment can significantly improve the experience and quality of care for dementia patients. Minor changes to ward layouts, colour coded doors and simpler signs are just some of the suggestions which would reduce stress and confusion for those patients while freeing up nursing staff who would otherwise be assisting those in their care who were confused and disoriented and reducing associated falls and injuries.
Better training of ward nurses is essential. Most of the time nurses do a hard job fantastically well but there is much improvement required when it comes to dealing with patients with dementia. Having met with a number of carers it is clear that the “care” element of nursing those with dementia is sometimes lacking for example at meal times. Investment in better training is something we should now be considering and could save money in the long term.
More importantly however, it is vital that the number of unnecessary hospital admissions is reduced. This can only be achieved by the invaluable support of the community care which is available to people with dementia and those who care for them. I have previously and will continue to voice my support for reform of the social care system because of how proper care can transform the life of both patients and carers. If proper community support and assistance is in place 24 hours a day, the number of incidents such as falls which result in hospital admissions could be reduced significantly. I don’t want to keep hearing of appalling experiences like the one I heard on the radio this morning so it is a no-brainer really: it is time to urgently look again about how we treat our dementia patients in hospital.