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Dementia identification scheme dubbed ‘unethical’

Leading GPs urge policy to be withdrawn

Jo Carlowe

Thursday, 06 November 2014

Leading doctors and health campaigners are urging the government to withdraw its dementia identification scheme.

Under the scheme, English GPs will be paid £55 for every dementia diagnosis they make from now until next April. But in an open letter* published in The BMJ today, GPs and other campaigners, describe the scheme as “unethical”.

In the letter to Simon Stevens, NHS Chief executive, and Alistair Burns, National Clinical Lead for Dementia, GP Dr Martin Brunet, of Binscombe Medical Centre, Surrey, together with over 50 others says, the policy is unethical and should be withdrawn without delay.

Helping people affected by dementia to achieve a diagnosis is a worthwhile goal, but the means of achieving this must have a sound ethical basis, they write.

They believe the introduction of a financial incentive to the making of a diagnosis “has set a dangerous precedent which needs to be urgently reconsidered.”

The diagnostic process is unique in the doctor-patient relationship due to the fact that the patient has to trust the doctor’s judgment, they explain. There must, therefore, be absolute surety that the doctor has no other motivation than the patient’s best interests when they make a diagnosis.

A direct financial payment like this “undermines this confidence, and with it the basis of trust inherent in the doctor-patient relationship,” they argue.

They point out that patients who may have dementia are particularly vulnerable, and that the diagnosis is a subjective, clinical assessment, meaning that misdiagnosis is a very real possibility.

“To be given a diagnosis of dementia is challenging when the diagnosis is correct, but to receive such a label incorrectly can have truly tragic consequences.”

This scheme may have good intentions, but it has crossed a line that should never be crossed, and contravenes good medical practice, they conclude. 

“The reaction of the general public to the story is a demonstration of the widespread concern that the policy is unethical, and we ask for it to be withdrawn without delay.”

* Martin Brunet, et al. An open letter to Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, and Alistair Burns, national clinical lead for dementia. BMJ 2014;349:g6666 doi:10.1136/bmj.g6666

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