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The Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation uses the publication of a new report to call for more action on the dangers of winter to people with acute respiratory conditions:

Winter pressures in hospitals are not a new phenomenon.

Every winter GP surgeries and hospitals see an influx from people with respiratory conditions. But if we know lung disease is at the heart of our winter pressures, surely we should be doing a lot more about it?

Many people have a winter image of A&E departments being full of fractures and sprained ankles from icy conditions. In fact, orthopaedic admissions do not change much over the year. By contrast, respiratory admissions see an enormous spike over the winter, with 80% more patients being admitted in December, January and February than in the warmer months of March, April and May. This trend is virtually unique among major disease areas.

Around 62% more people died from a respiratory condition in the winter of 2016-17 compared with the non-winter months. And while respiratory infections are common, with older people and young children particularly at risk, people living with a long term condition like asthma or COPD are more likely to have a flare up in winter.

All this puts increased pressure on our health services and, in particular, our A&Es. While it’s well documented that admissions rise in the winter, health professionals, think tanks and providers have all raised serious concerns about how the NHS will cope this year.

The impact of lung disease on Emergency Departments during winter is laid out in a new report from the British Lung Foundation, Out in the Cold: lung disease, the hidden driver of winter pressures.

Working with respiratory clinicians, we have made a number of recommendations to improve patient care and reduce the burden on A&Es.

First, we need to step up our prevention strategy. This means increasing the flu jab rate and ensuring patients with chronic conditions get the support they need to manage their illness all year round. We need to ensure that specialist respiratory care and advice is available in primary care to ensure that people who do not need to go to hospital can get the help they need elsewhere.

However good our prevention and diversion plans are, there will still be an increase in patients becoming seriously ill with lung conditions in the winter. This is predictable and hospitals should be prepared to respond. One way to do this is to re-allocate beds, for example from elective surgery wards, to take extra respiratory patients. And, we need to ensure discharge and community support is there to get people home again safely.

The annual winter crisis in respiratory care highlights that we need a strategy. That’s why the British Lung Foundation has established the Taskforce for Lung Health to develop a new five year plan for respiratory services.

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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  1. Josephine C says:

    Whilst I’m delighted the NHS and BLF are taking this initiative, couldn’t we hear more about prevention rather than “cure” (I know asthma and COPD can’t be cured really – I mean treatment really here). What about warning the public not to install wood stoves, for a start? Surely, inhaling the smoke and particles will only making lung and heart sufferers worse? It might be what is IN the cold air that makes someone suddenly ill, quite apart from the cold air itself. The same goes for breathing in diesel fumes from vehicles left idling in the street and at school gates, that will be more common in winter too, surely. Also, you could tell them to avoid scented Xmas candles, indeed anything “fragranced”, whilst out shopping (or at home)as certain chemicals in such products can also lead to A&E visits. Simply being a lot more aware, and having an emergency plan in your mind (if only to move away FAST from anything or anyone whose presence is making you feel ill), could save some lives?

  2. Karen Baines says:

    The stove industry sold 200 000 units last year. Each one is equivalent to 25 diesel trucks (the really old dirty ones). That is the same as putting 5 MILLION diesel trucks back on the roads. The PM2.5 emissions increase in winter as these wood stoves are fired up. There is no safe limit to PM2.5 exposure even low exposure triggers heart attacks, asthma and stroke. The only way to protect the most vulnerable groups is to call for a total ban on burning in residential areas. The air pollution problem is not being addressed by Gov – leading to premature deaths increasing from 40 to 60 000. Homes with stoves can be 500% more hazardous than the outside air (traffic makes up 18% of PM2.5 – domestic woodsmoke is 42%)
    Karen Baines

    • Penny Woods says:

      Hi thanks so much for your comments.

      We absolutely agree that wood burning is part of our air pollution crisis. DEFRA estimate that about 40% of PM2.5 nationally comes from wood burning.

      Large amounts of particulate matter does also come from traffic emissions, particularly in our towns and cities. We know that diesel emits more of these harmful emissions.That’s why the BLF’s clean air campaign currently focuses on lowering harmful vehicle emissions.

      This year we will be working with DEFRA to support their work on wood burning and urging them to publish a comprehensive clean air strategy. We have also updated our health information to reflect any new research and evidence in this area-

      In the long run, we want the government to bring in a new clean air act in 2018 that will tackle all sources of pollution and put in place measures to protect all our health.

      Thanks again.