People are conscious of keeping their heart healthy, but aren’t aware of lung health
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a growing problem across the world. It impacts on individuals, healthcare systems and economies. Despite this, there is still relatively little awareness of the condition amongst the general population and probably many people reading this article. The disease, progressively damages the lungs and can impede all aspects of everyday life. Deaths from COPD have doubled in the last three decades and are expected to further increase by 30% in the next 10 years, unless we act now.
As Chair of the European Lung Foundation (ELF) I am acutely aware of the impact and economic burden COPD has on failing economies across Europe. The disease used to be associated with elderly men but, in recent years, it has become much more prevalent in men and women of a working age (45-65 years old). This means it is having an even greater impact on the economy, with people being forced to give up work early because of their illness. In an international study published last year , led by Education for Health in the UK, we found the average age of retirement for people with COPD was 54 years: 6-10 years earlier than expected, which has a huge personal cost (about $200,000 per individual) and potentially a catastrophic societial impact on lost productivity. Despite this seemingly obvious burden, COPD is still underdiagnosed in 75% of cases. Research suggests that this is because the test for COPD, known as spirometry, is either not being used or, where it is, it’s being used ineffectively.
Unlike much of the rest of Europe, in the UK, we have finally started to take steps to tackle this problem. It’s taken several years and a lot of persistence, but the COPD Outcomes Strategy, published in July last year, will help to encourage good lung health among the public and ensure healthcare professionals are working towards earlier diagnosis of respiratory diseases. We need to ensure that the strategy is now embedded into NHS work plans. If this proves successful, the NHS could take the lead in Europe for providing a solution to this problem and could be used as a benchmark for other healthcare systems across the continent.
A key component of the strategy is to highlight regular and early lung testing. This can identify people with COPD before too much damage is done, which also gives them a chance to slow the progression of the disease before it completely ruins their lung function. I’m always surprised at how many people are conscious of keeping their heart healthy, but aren’t aware of the importance of lung health. Most people are aware of an ECG – or electrocardiogram – as a test for their heart, but wouldn’t be able to name a spirometry test, which is the equivalent test for the lungs.
In addition to government action, healthcare professionals across the globe are recognising the need to help change public perceptions of respiratory disease. Spirometry testing is being highlighted this month by global respiratory leaders as part of the World Spirometry Day campaign. The initiative aims to encourage the public to go and get their lungs tested and to be aware of their lung health. One event as part of the campaign is being held in Birmingham at COPD8, a global conference on COPD. ELF together with the European COPD Coalition (ECC) will use this event to call for lung testing to be a basic health right for all across Europe.
In addition to raising public awareness, there is also a need to ensure that healthcare professionals across Europe are trained appropriately in spirometry testing. As Chief Executive Officer of the UK-based training organisation, Education for Health, I am often advocating for the education of health professionals as a key factor in improving patient health and quality of life. In addition to improving standards of spirometry testing, there is a need to improve the process by which healthcare professionals take the history of a patient, so that a diagnosis of COPD is accurate. The standards for spirometry testing and history-taking can vary widely across Europe, with some areas excelling and others falling short of the standard guidelines.
By empowering the public to ask for spirometry testing and prioritising further training for healthcare professionals, I believe we can make considerable progress with slowing the progression of this debilitating disease.Tagged in: chronic lung disease, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, European Lung Foundation, health, nhs
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