Improving Detection Rates and Management of Dementia in Primary Care through Educational Interventions

Kristin Casady, Editorial Director, Geriatrics & Aging.

A recent study examined the effectiveness of educational interventions in improving detection and management of dementia in the primary care setting (BMJ 2006;332:692-6). Achieving improved detection rates and advances in the provision of ongoing care for demented individuals is facilitated by the integration of decision support systems and practice-based workshops, the study’s authors concluded.


Primary care practitioners play a role of fundamental importance in diagnosing dementia as they are the point of patients’ first medical contact. Practitioners must deliver prompt intervention and provide ongoing care for their patients receiving the diagnosis, yet inadequate detection and management have been widely documented. Further, it is observed that clinicians often face profound obstacles in executing this role. There may be difficulty in assessing the presence of dementia (for a recent discussion of the diagnosis and treatment of the older adult with cognitive complaints, see Myronuk L. Pitfalls in the diagnosis of dementia. Geriatrics Aging 2006;9:12-9). Challenges are reported to include such barriers as a lack of resources and insufficient cooperation among the general practitioner’s team, involved specialists, and community services.

Assessing Effective Diagnosis and Management: Study of U.K. Practices
Thirty-six general practices in the United Kingdom (central Scotland and London) were recruited as settings for an unblinded, cluster randomized, before-and-after controlled study organized around the provision of three educational interventions: one, a CD-ROM tutorial; two, decision-support software built into the practices’ electronic medical records; and three, practice-based workshops for the general practitioners (the curriculum used is available for download from the U.K.’s Alzheimer’s Society website, Eight practices were randomly assigned to the electronic tutorial; eight to decision-support software; 10 to practice-based workshops; and 10 to control. Results were obtained from 450 valid and usable records. The design of the interventions was modeled to reflect different approaches to adult learning: the electronic tutorial for self-directed learning; decision-support software for real-time investigations of actual cases; and workshops to facilitate peer communication about the cases under consideration.

Based on searches of the record system for the terms dementia, confusion, memory loss, and cognitive impairment, all practices identified registered patients aged 75 and over who were diagnosed as having dementia or had been assessed as having probable dementia by a general practitioner or specialist.
Investigators audited detection rates prior to and approximately nine months after the intervention. Analysis was conducted of differences in baseline concordance scores with best-practice guidelines for the diagnosis and management of dementia, repeating the analysis for postintervention scores. The ten-item diagnosis concordance score gathered data on items that included whether clinicians took measures such as requesting blood tests at index consultation, took full histories, undertook cognitive testing, and completed scans, both at index consultation and then secondarily after index consultation (before diagnosis). Management concordance scores tracked items such as concerns of caregivers, behaviour problems, depression screening/treatment, referrals to social services, and initiation of pharmacological treatment regiments.

Outcome: Improved Rates of Detection

Regarding changes in rates of detection, diagnosis, and management, the study’s authors noted improved rates of detected dementia with decision-support software and practice-based workshops compared with control: individuals identified as having dementia after the interventions represented 31% of all cases diagnosed in the practice-based workshops arm, 20% in the electronic tutorial arm, 30% in the decision support software arm, and 11% in the control arm. Authors reported the positive effect of the decision-support software as particularly encouraging, with practitioners describing software as simple and practical to implement. However, no difference in concordance with guidelines regarding the management of dementia was noted. This outcome was ascribed to the modest number of cases identified after the intervention and the relatively few cases in the control arm. The result was also described as traceable to the investigators relying on the medical record for evidence of practice; they postulated that practitioners may have improved their practice but not noted it. The authors highlighted the value of focussed educational interventions directed at improving clinical record-keeping.

Successful management of dementing illnesses depends first on effective detection. This study affirms that interventions such as decision-support software and practice-based workshops can improve those rates. The authors highlight that future interventions aimed at improving concordance with recommended diagnosis or management may be furthered by the effect of combining locality initiatives with practice-based interventions, such as ones that incorporate local opinion leaders as well as encourage the direct involvement of patients and caregivers.