The medical news is full of articles about the coming epidemic of dementia. How many people will have it in 10 years, 20 years, etc. It’s a very legitimate concern, and I am not going to make light of it, or disagree with the predictions.
In my everyday practice, though, I find there’s an epidemic of overdiagnosed dementia, in those who aren’t even close.
This occurs in a few ways:
Aricept is pretty inexpensive these days. Long off patent, insurance companies don’t bother to question its use anymore. So anyone older than 60 who complains of losing their car keys gets put on it. Why? Because patients want their doctors to DO SOMETHING. Even if the doctor knows that there’s really nothing of alarm going on, sometimes it’s easier to go with the placebo effect than argue. I think we’ve all done that before.
There are also a lot of nonneurologists in practice who still, after almost 30 years on the market, think Aricept improves memory, when in fact that’s far from the truth. The best it can claim to do is slow down the rate at which patients get worse, but nobody wants to hear that.
I’ve also seen Aricept used for pseudodementia due to depression. Actually, I’ve seen it used for depression, too. Sometimes it’s used to counteract the side effects dof drugs that can impair cognition, such as Topamax, even in patients who aren’t even remotely demented.
None of the above are a major issue on their own. Where the trouble really happens, as with so many other things, is when they collide with an EMR, or someone too rushed to take a history, or both.
Let’s say Mrs. Jones is on Aricept because she went into a room, then forgot why she did.
Then she gets admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. Or she changes doctors and, like many practices these days, her medications are put in the computer by an MA or secretary.
A lot of times, so that gets punched in as a diagnosis and the patient is now believed to be unable to provide a reliable history. Or the person entering the info looks up its indication and enters “Alzheimer’s disease.”
Even worse is that I’ve seen EMRs where, in an effort to save time, the computer automatically enters diagnoses as you type medications in, and it’s up to the doctor to review them for accuracy. How that saves time I have no idea. But, as above, in these cases it’s going to lead to an entry of dementia where there isn’t any.
That, in particular, is pretty scary. As I wrote here in January of this year, what happens in the EMR stays in the EMR (kind of like Las Vegas).
I’m not knocking off-label use of medications. I don’t know a doctor who doesn’t use some that way, including myself.
But when doing so leads to the wrong assumptions and diagnoses it creates a lot of problems.
Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.