The fight for early diagnosis of lung disease
Respiratory Lung disease inflicts a huge health and economic burden on UK society and the NHS. Yet early diagnosis of conditions such as lung cancer and COPD could have a huge impact, preventing unnecessary deaths and improving quality of life.
I love my work but something which is always difficult is having to tell someone they have a life-limiting lung condition and knowing that better treatment may have been possible if they had been diagnosed sooner.
Early and accurate diagnosis of lung disease is critical to achieving better outcomes for patients. Sadly, research shows that over a third of lung cancer patients are only diagnosed following an emergency hospital admission, by which stage the disease can be too advanced to be cured.
The statistics make for grim reading. Alongside heart disease and non-respiratory cancer, lung disease is one of the UK’s three biggest killers, with one person dying every five minutes from a respiratory condition. Only three European countries – Denmark, Romania and Hungary, have a higher lung disease death rate than the UK. Things are improving gradually, but we must do better and accelerate the pace of change.
To really drive things forward, it is vital we have an overall NHS strategy to diagnose and treat lung disease earlier. There have been similar effective initiatives for cancer and diabetes. A respiratory strategy would reap huge health and economic benefits.
A centre-piece activity within an early diagnosis strategy must be continued public education. Whilst 1 in 5 have been diagnosed with a lung condition, many people have never heard of common respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Recent national awareness campaigns have been very welcome, but must be sustained to make a real difference.
The NHS Health Check, which reviews the health of 40-74 year olds for signs of heart disease and diabetes, should also include a check on lung health. This relatively simple change could achieve a great deal in detecting problems at an early stage.
The NHS should also review and recommend the best tools to help GP practices identify those most at risk in order to pick up people with lung disease much earlier.
Finally, we must adequately fund and roll out the new national initiative to ensure health professionals who deliver and interpret spirometry (a key breathing test in diagnosing many lung diseases) are appropriately trained and quality assured.
We can improve and save lives if we diagnose and treat lung disease earlier. Many other countries do it and we can too. As respiratory specialists, we need to work across the NHS, with our patients and in partnership with Government to tackle the issue head on.