Dementia antipsychotics hospital malpractice lawsuitAround the world, approximately 47 million people suffer from dementia, including more than 500,000 in Canada. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to 131 million. And because we don’t know for sure what causes dementia, the quest to develop a cure – or even a reliable treatment – has so far proven fruitless.

Faced with a currently incurable health crisis, long term care facilities in Canada have turned to antipsychotic medications to treat dementia patients. And while this course of action may be appropriate in some cases, the long term impacts of antipsychotics are damaging and could, in certain cases, lead to a hospital malpractice lawsuit.

What we know about dementia

Dementia is a diverse ailment that manifests in roughly 100 different forms. Between 70 and 80 per cent of dementia patients suffer from Alzheimer’s.

The most widely accepted theory of what causes dementia is known as the ‘amyloid hypothesis,’ which suggests the amyloid beta protein clumps together to create a sticky plaque that clogs up the brain. An alternative theory places tau, another protein, at the heart of the issue. However, as the Globe and Mail’s public health reporter Andre Picard writes in a recent article, “we don’t even know the basic mechanisms of what causes Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”

The only universally accepted risk factors for dementia remain aging and genetics.

How are we fighting the disease?

Although G8 leaders have promised to cure the disease by 2025, pharmaceutical companies have failed again and again to develop an effective treatment for dementia. Recently, a drug called “solanezumab,” which aimed to stop amyloid beta proteins from clumping together, failed to slow Alzheimer’s progress in severe, moderate, or even mild cases.

An effective Alzheimer’s drug would have enormous market potential, and could generate as much as $10-billion per year in sales. But despite a clear financial incentive, drug manufacturers’ efforts have thus far come up empty; the few medications that have been approved for use provide only temporary relief from the disease’s devastating symptoms.

Antipsychotics as a treatment for dementia

With no effective treatments available, many long term care facilities have opted to treat dementia patients with antipsychotic medications, the use of which can lead to a hospital malpractice lawsuit.

Originally developed to treat patients suffering from schizophrenia and other disorders that produce hallucinations, antipsychotics are an aggressive option. Some dementia patients do experience hallucinations, but the drugs are most commonly administered to those exhibiting aggressive or agitated behaviour.

Unfortunately, consuming antipsychotics over a long period of time can have significant adverse effects.

“A growing body of research now suggests that prolonged use of antipsychotic drugs can pose risk to patients, including slightly increasing the chance of developing electrical abnormalities in the heart or causing rigid movements resembling Parkinson’s disease,” wrote columnist Paul Taylor in the Globe and Mail.

Antipsychotics also contribute to “an elevated chance of death from all causes,” for reasons that remain unclear. It’s possible that prolonged use can result in heart issues and catastrophic falls. Given this information, it’s plain to see why the overuse of antipsychotics can lead to a hospital malpractice lawsuit.

What are our options?

Without doubt, antipsychotics are an appropriate solution for some patients, including those who pose a risk to themselves or others, and those suffering from hallucinations or delusions. But, as Dr. Barbara Liu of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre told the Globe and Mail, other approaches should be attempted first. As dementia progresses, patients often lose their ability to clearly communicate, and may resort to aggressive or agitated behaviour in hopes of expressing hunger, pain, or boredom.

Some Canadian jurisdictions have worked to reduce the amount of antipsychotics being prescribed. In Alberta, in particular, the number of dementia patients being treated with these drugs has fallen from 26.8 per cent in 2011-2012, to 18 per cent today.

“[The patients] were better able to connect with their environment – they weren’t sleeping all the time,” project leader Mollie Cole told the Globe. “We even had people who started playing a musical instrument again.”

If a member of your family has experienced harm through prescribed antipsychotic medications, you may have grounds to engage in a hospital malpractice lawsuit. Over-prescription is a common issue in hospitals and long-term care facilities across Canada, one which can cause significant pain and suffering. Contact Neinstein Personal Injury Lawyers’ Medical Malpractice Group today for a free, no-obligation consultation.

Greg Neinstein