Much earlier diagnosis of chronic lung disease is needed

Doctors are failing to make an early diagnosis in 85 per cent of chronic lung diseases, which kill 25,000 people in the UK every year, a new study has revealed.

In a study, carried out by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula School of Medicine and Dentistry, researchers retrospectively analysed the care records of 39,000 patients who had been diagnosed with COPD between 1990 and 2009. They found that in 85 per cent of cases, the patient had visited their GP or a clinic with symptoms which might have indicated COPD, up to five years before an actual diagnosis was made. Many of the patients had symptoms even earlier, which were not investigated. More than half of the patients showed symptoms 6 to 10 years before a diagnosis, and 42 per cent had shown signs that might have been COPD between 11 to 15 years prior to finally being diagnosed. 

The author of the study Dr Rupert Jones commenting on the findings said,“The substantial numbers of patients misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed in this study is a cause for concern. Both general practitioners and patients are failing to recognise the significance of symptoms.”

He said that the first signs of lung disease should prompt further tests but that this did not happen in too many cases and that patients often dismiss their symptoms as “smoker’s cough”.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the collective name for a number of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema, the chief causes of which are smoking.  It is known to affect 900,000 people in the UK, but the numbers could be significantly higher because of under-diagnosis. The symptoms include breathlessness, a persistent cough and regular chest infections.

Early diagnosis of the condition allows further damage to the lungs to be prevented. In addition, the Department of Health has estimated that £1bn could be saved for the NHS over ten years if chronic lung diseases were diagnosed sooner.

The study is published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal.

Any of the main air pipes beyond the windpipe, or trachea, which have cartilage in their wall. Full medical glossary
Acute inflammation of the air passages within the lungs Full medical glossary
A disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. Full medical glossary
An abbreviation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Full medical glossary
The process of determining which condition a patient may have. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of genetic material carried on chromosomes. Full medical glossary
Invasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. Full medical glossary
A tube placed inside a tubular structure in the body, to keep it patent, that is, open. Full medical glossary