UK Lung Disease Testing Crisis Threatens NHS, Warns Charity

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The lack of accessibility to simple, vital testing for prevalent lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (taking the form of emphysema and chronic bronchitis) or asthma is inhibiting GP’s from delivering precise diagnoses, warns renowned charity, Asthma and Lung UK. The lack of diagnostic resources could land a serious blow to the NHS, particularly in the winter, where respiratory viruses are rife. Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases affect one in every five individuals at some stage in their life, placing lung disease as the third leading cause of death in the UK, trailing behind cancer and heart disease.

Tests for lung function, such as peak-flow and spirometry tests, or fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNo) tests can more accurately diagnose lung diseases than listening to the chest. However, numerous practices are denied the necessary funding to execute these tests, compelling GPs into a corner, causing them to base diagnoses on educated guesswork rather than empiric data.

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Lucie Irwin, at age 29, began struggling with her breath, difficulty walking ensued. Prescribed an asthma inhaler by her doctor, with follow-up treatments after the inhaler proved to be ineffective, she found herself laden with four inhalers and three types of tablets daily. To no avail, her life became restricted. Repeated hospital visits and online advice from fellow asthma patients led to her being tested and diagnosed with eosinophilic asthma, requiring regular injections of an immunosuppressant drug. This drug, she says, has given her life back.

It isn’t simply a tragedy of one. Asthma and Lung UK subject to an analysis which indicates that up to 750,000 people in England alone are incorrectly diagnosed with asthma, costing the UK government an estimated £132m annually. An additional £2.2bn is spent on preventable hospital stays and treatments. Undiagnosed lung diseases or severe asthma attacks can escalate into life-threatening or incurable conditions. The NHS incurs £11bn every year on lung diseases and COPD is the second top reason for emergency hospital admissions.

Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma and Lung UK, emphasizes that an appalling lack of testing and patchy basic care are causing preventable harm not only to the patients with lung illnesses, but also to the NHS as a whole. Dr. Andrew Whittamore, the charity’s clinical lead, highlights the vast barriers that GP practices face, including lack of funding, inadequate workforce, insufficient training, and lack of space to carry out vital tests.

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