New NHS advice may help diagnose lung disease

Monday, 14 May 2012 2:15 PM

Two million people in the UK are unaware they have a potentially fatal lung disease.

New advice for the NHS on diagnosing patients, could help save lives as well as money, says the Department of Health.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is mainly caused by smoking. It kills around 23,000 people per year, making it the UK’s fifth biggest killer disease.

The Department of Health today published advice on diagnosis, and if followed across the NHS could save an estimated 7,800 lives annually.

The NHS currently spends £1bn a year treating COPD, but implementing the top five actions for these patients alone could lead to savings of nearly £1/2 billion over ten years. It costs nearly ten times more to treat severe COPD than the mild form of the disease, so improved diagnosis rates will save money.

Around 3.2m adults have COPD but an estimated 70 per cent – 2.1m people – go undiagnosed. Giving those people a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is a priority for the NHS.

Health Minister Simon Burns said: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one of the UK’s hidden killers. Around two million people do not have a proper diagnosis or get proper treatment.

“COPD causes irreversible lung damage and often by the time people are correctly diagnosed it’s too late. The earlier we catch the disease, the better.” 

Dame Helena Shovelton, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “If left untreated, COPD gets worse over time and can leave people so short of breath that even simple tasks, like getting dressed or walking round the house, can be a real struggle. By looking to improve diagnosis and treatment, this new action plan will therefore not just save lives, but could dramatically improve the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of COPD sufferers nationwide.”

The report found that the north of England has much better diagnosis rates than the south, but also the highest death rates from COPD.
Once patients have been diagnosed doctors can keep them better for longer, for example by using ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’, special exercises or physiotherapy which helps strengthen the lungs.

The new guidance covers both COPD and asthma as the two diseases can be confused due to similar symptoms. Understanding the similarities and differences will help doctors properly treat the two conditions.

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