Lack of lung disease testing causing ‘avoidable harm’ in NHS

lung screening
Brett Jordan

A patient organisation in the UK has said that a lack of basic testing for lung conditions like asthma in primary care is leading to many people remaining undiagnosed, adding to the pressure faced by the NHS as respiratory viruses spread in the winter months.

Asthma + Lung UK says that lung healthcare in England is in a “dire state”, as simple tests for common lung conditions are not widely available to GPs, forcing them to make “educated guesses” when it comes to diagnosis.

A new report commissioned by the charity and carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers calculates that this leads to around £2.2 billion ($2.68 billion) in added costs to NHS England due to avoidable hospital stays, as well as treatment for exacerbations of respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A key obstacle is a lack of funding for tests like peak-flow and spirometry, as well as fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNo), used to diagnose asthma, according to the report. As a result, thousands of people miss out on tests every year, leaving them undiagnosed or receiving treatment for conditions they don’t have.

The report indicates that as many as 750,000 people in England are misdiagnosed with asthma, costing an estimated £132 million every year.

Lung disease is the third-biggest killer in the UK, behind cancer and heart disease, and will affect one in five people at some point in their lives. Early detection is crucial for treating and managing lung conditions effectively and can help slow down the progression of incurable lung diseases such as COPD.

Asthma + Lung UK is making three recommendations to the UK government to improve care, starting with an increase in funding to ramp up testing. That should be backed up by improved patient monitoring, through annual reviews with a medical professional, and improved access to medications and treatments.

It claims the policy changes could save the NHS a total of £307 million a year and free up almost 312,000 bed days, over 100,000 of which would be during the winter period.

“The abysmal lack of testing and patchy basic care [are] causing avoidable harm to people with lung conditions and the NHS,” said Asthma + Lung UK's chief executive, Sarah Woolnough.

“There are huge savings to be made by improving the diagnosis and treatment of lung conditions such as asthma and COPD, in terms of direct NHS savings, including reducing hospital bed days,” she added.

“It doesn’t make sense that lung conditions aren’t given the same priority as other big killers, such as heart disease.”

A spokesperson for the NHS told the BBC that it “recognises the importance of early and accurate diagnosis of respiratory disease, which is why it is inviting more than a million people for a lung cancer check in convenient locations across the country, while basic lung function tests are available at GP practices and community diagnostic centres.”

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.