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Greater focus on lung disease could be a breath of life

To mark Respiratory NHS Long Term Plan focus week the Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation explains why it’s so important to increase awareness for lung disease:

The British Lung Foundation (BLF) has just celebrated Love Your Lungs week – our annual awareness campaign – and the focus this year was on breathlessness and early diagnosis for lung disease.

It’s estimated two million Brits may have undiagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)  – a group of lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs. That means there are two million people who are struggling to breathe, and they aren’t getting the medical support they need.

That’s why a few years ago the BLF developed an online Breath Test – a simple questionnaire that helps people to determine if their breathlessness is normal, or if they might need to seek medical attention. To date it’s been used more than 525,000 times.

A study of 350,000 responses from people using the Breath Test between January 2016 and April 2018 for Love Your Lungs week saw 20% reporting their lives were significantly limited by breathlessness. The vast majority who took the test said they were worried about their breathing but despite their concerns about one-quarter had not consulted a doctor.

We want GPs and other healthcare professionals to be supported to identify people who may be at risk of COPD, such as those with a history of smoking, of asthma or bronchitis, and those with frequent chest infections.

Delays in diagnosis mean valuable time is lost treating people, and patients can end up with a diminished quality of life. I’ve heard stories of people being so breathless they can barely leave their house – but they still hadn’t been to a doctor.

It’s hard to know exactly why people with symptoms of lung disease like severe breathlessness, coughing up blood and a prolonged chesty cough aren’t visiting their doctor. We do know that some people think that gradually becoming more and more breathless is a normal part of ageing – which isn’t true.

It’s also likely that people just don’t know enough about lung disease to spot the signs. One in three people will get lung disease in their lifetime, and it’s the UK’s third-biggest killer behind heart disease and cancer. However, research commissioned by the Taskforce for Lung Health – a unique collaboration between patient representatives, health care professionals and other experts with a shared vision for improving lung disease outcomes – shows a lack of public awareness around lung disease with 92% of respondents saying they didn’t know much or anything about lung disease when questioned.

So how do we make the public more aware of the symptoms of one of our biggest killers? There’s no easy answer, but for the first time, lung disease is a priority for the NHS, which is a big step forward. The BLF is a member of the Taskforce for Lung Health, which is working with NHS England and NHS Improvement on the respiratory section of the Long Term Plan, and early diagnosis is a key priority for the plan.

We also hope that our Love Your Lungs week went some way towards making people think about their lung health, and I’d like to say a big thank you to all the NHS staff, patients and fellow health charities that got involved.

Dr Penny Woods

Dr Penny Woods is Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation.

Penny, a qualified as a doctor with an MA from Cambridge University and MBA from INSEAD, has many years’ experience in the healthcare sector working as a management consultant for clients including governments, multi-national companies, NHS organisations and private healthcare providers.

She spent seven years in a number of senior roles at BTG plc and, before joining the BLF, she was chief executive of the Picker Institute Europe.

Penny is passionate about working on behalf of patients, from personal and family experience of COPD, asthma, obstructive sleep apnoea and motor neurone disease.

You can follow Penny on Twitter: @blfpenny.

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