How McKesson UK is helping give a voice to people with dementia

Our clinical standards director, Steve Howard talks about how the findings from research funded by McKesson UK can help to improve the way we communicate with people affected by dementia – and may even be the key to earlier diagnoses of the condition.

When we think about the effects of dementia, we often think about the impact it has on memory. What we don’t tend to think about is the impact it has on use of language and the ability to communicate. Not being able to express ourselves can be just as debilitating, yet until now there has been a lack of research into the relationship between dementia and language. That’s why we chose to fund a project looking at this subject, through our charity partner Alzheimer’s Society.

Supporting research like this helps us to evaluate how we communicate with our own customers and patients. Around 90% of people living with dementia are over the age of 65, as are many of our LloydsPharmacy customers. Our pharmacy teams, homecare nurses and delivery drivers regularly interact with dementia patients and their carers so it’s imperative that we can communicate with them effectively.

Fundamental findings

The research team discovered that particular speech patterns can actually be used to help spot early signs of dementia. The findings also indicated that certain language patterns are more easily processed and understood by people with dementia. This means that its possible for communication strategies to be developed that can help families and professionals better interact with people living with the condition.

Language shapes how we interact with those around us. In our world, it allows patients and customers to convey their needs to our pharmacists and our nurses. Patients with dementia may struggle to perform simple communication tasks, which can make it difficult for them to express themselves. Speaking from personal experience, I know just how difficult it can be to communicate with a loved one affected by dementia.

With these findings we can help colleagues to better understand how to communicate with dementia patients. We also hope that the principles from this research can be applied to help our pharmacies teams become more vigilant and aware of language features that may indicate early signs of dementia.

Research summary

The first part of the study examined the relationship between language patterns and the progression of dementia. The research team used a piece of software called the Frequency in Language Analysis Tool (FLAT) to analyse conversation samples of both healthy speakers and people living with dementia. They found that the language patterns and structures were different for each group. These findings suggest that the way a person speaks, can be useful in spotting earlier signs of dementia. Excitingly, this has wide ranging implications for future research.

The findings from the second part of the project are particularly interesting for our frontline teams who interact with dementia patients every day. The research suggests that the way we structure and order our sentences can have an impact on how easily a person with dementia understands what’s being said. Existing guidance for communicating with people affected by dementia advises that you should put the most important word, i.e. the topic, at the start of a sentence, even if it creates an unfamiliar structure. For example, “Breakfast – would you like some juice?” vs. the naturalistic “Would you like some juice for breakfast?”. The results from this research suggests that this is not the best option. It indicates that it is just as effective to communicate naturally when talking to someone with dementia. This makes it easier for the person with dementia to understand and prevent unnecessary confusion, allowing them to feel more in control and less stressed.

Colleague involvement

One of the most exciting outcomes of the study came from the third part of the project. Not only did we help fund the research, but our colleagues also helped to contribute to it. The research team wanted to find out about the difficulties people with dementia experience in everyday communicative situations, for example when visiting a pharmacy.

A group of pharmacists, nurses and delivery drivers were invited to take part in a focus group at our head office, where they could share their own experiences of interacting with patients and customers living with dementia. It was interesting to hear from so many different perspectives. For example, one pharmacist spoke about how they had a patient who would visit the store several times for the same reason and often repeat questions to the team. People with dementia can also get confused over prescriptions and doses. We hope there is potential for a future project exploring the development of some communication training for healthcare professionals.

The findings of the project fascinate me. Not only because they’re relatable to our business, but because most people who have been touched by dementia will also relate to them. We chose to partner with Alzheimer’s Society in 2015 because our expertise in healthcare, along with our presence within communities means we are ideally positioned to back their initiatives, spread their key messages and help implement findings from projects such as this.

Thank you to Professor Rosemary Varley and her team at University College London for carrying out the research and allowing us to be involved. We’re excited to see where these findings lead.