BLF survey: Thousands with serious breathlessness may not be getting vital medical care

Thousands of people with serious breathlessness may not be getting the care they need, according to figures published today (Tuesday 9 April).

An online survey of more than 350,000 people by the British Lung Foundation (BLF) found 20% of respondents reported that they were significantly limited by breathlessness.

This could indicate an underlying condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or a heart problem.

Although the vast majority of these breathless people reported they were worried about their breathing, about a quarter had not consulted a doctor about their symptoms.

The figures, published in the medical journal Thorax, are based on responses from those who took the online BLF Breath Test between January 2016 and April 2018. The breath test includes 10 questions including physical activity, smoking and the Medical Research Council’s breathlessness scale.

Significant limitation was defined as being at least bad enough that a person had to walk slower than most people their age on a level surface, or had to stop walking at even at their own pace, because they got short of breath.

Dr Nick Hopkinson, the BLF’s Medical Director and an author of the study, said:

Getting out of breath during normal activities is not a normal part of aging, it requires an explanation.

Breathlessness can be due to lack of fitness or being overweight, but it may also be a sign someone has a lung or heart problem.

There are simple tests of lung function to see if there’s a problem and it’s worrying many people are not getting the necessary checks to find this out.

It’s clear much more needs to be done to get people to take breathlessness seriously as a symptom, so people can get treatment at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“Even if breathlessness is not due to a medical condition, action to increase fitness, eat a healthy diet and stop smoking can all improve symptoms and will also reduce the risk of developing health problems in the future.

The survey also found that a majority of respondents who had sought medical attention for their breathlessness felt the advice they were given had not helped their symptoms.

More than half (58%) of the respondents with limiting breathlessness who had sought medical attention reported the advice they were given had not been effective.

The BLF believes the findings show NHS England must place a greater priority on early diagnosis for lung disease.

Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the BLF, said:

It is worrying thousands of people are reporting they feel breathless and yet do not receive adequate medical advice or seek medical advice in the first place.

Severe breathlessness, in medical terms, means a person having to walking slower than friends of the same age or having to stop for breath when walking at their own pace.

People should not be waiting until their breathlessness leaves them unable to leave to the house or get dressed before seeking medical advice.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK living with undiagnosed COPD and these figures are scratch the surface of the extent of the problem. Delays in diagnosis mean valuable time is lost treating people, which diminishes their quality of life.

The BLF is dedicated to identifying more people at risk of lung disease earlier. That’s why we want GPs to be supported so they can use targeted case finding to identify those 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.”

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