MONCTON — A professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Moncton says a computer application she developed could help doctors better predict the risk of dementia — and take some of the pressure off New Brunswick's medical system.
Sarah Pakzad has spent the last seven years researching and working on the Neurocognitive Frailty Index, which would help healthcare professionals guide patients through tests that would assess risk factors for dementia.
She said all too often, patients who are at a low risk for dementia are put on a waiting list to see a specialist, clogging up resources and taking time away from patients who are at a higher risk.
"It's going to help family physicians and nurse practitioners to help distinguish the patients who are at risk, or high risk, of developing dementia, in comparison with those who have a low risk but have similar symptoms," said Pakzad.
She said memory problems can be a symptom of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, so it's difficult to gauge whether or not someone is at risk for dementia based on that symptom alone.
The index draws information from a database of over 25,000 patients over the age of 50 and would produce a percentage probability of the patient developing dementia.
Pakzad said the index is more than 90 per cent accurate.
"This is the first time we have an index that's reliable, useful, and easy to work with," she said.
Pakzad hopes to finish the app's design within the next year.
In her research, she surveyed 800 family physicians in New Brunswick about how they deal with patients who may have dementia.
Many doctors told her they're ill-equipped to diagnose dementia and don't know what to do when people complain about memory and cognitive issues.
She said this creates frustration for patients, some of whom may have spent hours in a waiting room.
"Often they are hearing, 'No, no, that's okay, when you're getting old, it's just normal to have memory problems,'" she said, adding "No, that's not okay."
Bruno Battistini, CEO and scientific director of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, which provided much of the funding for the project, said this is a big gap in the province's health-care system.
"Medical doctors don't have, necessarily, the training … to do what we call cognitive assessments," he said. "This is a more specialized thing done by a geriatrician."
He said the issue lies in the fact that there's only one geriatrician per 100,000 people in New Brunswick.
Battistini hopes the app will help unclog waiting lists for people in search of a specialist by ruling out those who are at a low risk of dementia.
New Brunswick Medical Society CEO Anthony Knight said supports for patients with dementia exist in New Brunswick, but the system is struggling to keep up with the demand.
"It's a growing trend, the diagnosis of dementia, among seniors and other individuals. Our nursing home system is strained, for sure, to manage the complexities associated with dementia care," he said.
It will still be a while before the application will be available for doctors to use, but Pakzad said she's looking forward to seeing what healthcare professionals think.
Alex Cooke, The Canadian Press