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'Abysmal' Lack of Testing for Lung Conditions in the UK

An "abysmal" lack of testing for lung conditions has resulted in GPs playing a "guessing game" when they make diagnoses, and patients left to fend for themselves, a lung health charity warned.

Lung diseases such as COPD, asthma, and pneumonia are the third leading cause of death in England, whilst the UK as a whole had the "worst death rate from lung disease in Europe", according to a new report commissioned by Asthma + Lung UK, which noted that hospital admissions for lung diseases had doubled in the last 20 years.

The charity warned of an impending crisis in care that could create a "deluge" of hospital admissions this winter as respiratory viruses take hold and people struggle to heat their homes because of high energy prices.

An analysis conducted in partnership with Price Waterhouse Cooper showed that poor lung health cost the NHS £9.6 billion in 2019 prices, but Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma + Lung UK said it was people living with lung conditions "who are currently paying the highest price".

Lung Disease Not Prioritised

The charity report, Saving your breath: How better lung health benefits us all, warned of the "dire state" of lung healthcare in England, which often left people with breathing difficulties without a diagnosis, or receiving treatment for "conditions they don't have". 

Simple tests for common lung conditions aren't widely available to GPs, forcing them to make educated guesses when it comes to diagnosis, underlined the charity, which emphasised the importance of early detection.

It stated: "GP practices are not funded to carry out tests that can help diagnose lung conditions such as asthma and COPD. In contrast, testing for other common conditions, including heart failure, receive ample funding and have well-defined pathways leading to diagnosis."

Ms Woolnough said: "It doesn't make sense that lung conditions aren't given the same priority as other big killers such as heart disease."

Patchy Care Causing Harm

The report highlighted that the cost of the testing crisis in England alone amounted to an estimated £2.2 billion due to avoidable hospital stays and treatment, and that as many as 750,000 people in England were being misdiagnosed with asthma, costing an estimated £132 million every year.

"People with lung conditions are trapped in a vicious circle of late diagnosis, a limited number and lack of access to treatments, and poor support leaving people to fend for themselves," criticised the charity. This leads to avoidable emergency hospital admissions and avoidable strain on the NHS.

"The abysmal lack of testing and patchy basic care is causing avoidable harm to people with lung conditions and the NHS," Ms Woolnough said.

The charity outlined three recommendations that if adopted, it believed could offer relief to people affected and reduce pressure and deliver massive savings for the NHS. These included ensuring diagnostic tests were funded, improved access to the correct treatment, and providing people the support they needed to manage their lung condition.

If implemented, the recommendations would save £307 million a year and free up just under 273,000 bed days, of which over a third would be during the winter period in England, the charity claimed.

Dr Andrew Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma + Lung UK and a practising GP, stressed that the barriers faced by GP practices were "huge", and included a lack of funding, workforce, and training needed to carry out the tests properly, and the physical space needed to do them. "For people with lung conditions, it means delays to their diagnosis and sometimes progression of their lung disease to more advanced stages which can make treatment more challenging," he stressed.

"The ripple effect of this lack of testing means that patients are more likely to have a delay in their diagnosis or get an incorrect diagnosis leading to them being more seriously unwell," Dr Whittamore warned.

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