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Early diagnosis could help millions with undiagnosed lung disease

Two million people in the UK are estimated to have undiagnosed COPD, a debilitating lung disease. New research has pinpointed the barriers to getting more people diagnosed and treated earlier.

Southampton research led by Professor Tom Wilkinson, has investigated the views of GPs and nurses from across the South of England on offering screening to patients who may have the debilitating lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Catching patients early

COPD is a chronic lung condition, caused by smoking or exposure to dust and fumes. It sees the airways of the lung get ever narrower, making it harder to breathe and causing excess phlegm, wheezing and a persistent cough.

Diagnosing the condition at an earlier stage would give patients the opportunity to make changes to their lifestyle, such as quitting smoking, that could add years to their shortened life expectancy. However, due to the gradual progression of COPD, many patients remain undiagnosed for years.

Practical considerations

The study team conducted interviews over the phone with GPs, nurses, and practice managers from 37 different practices across the South of England, asking their views on early COPD diagnosis and the value of introducing a screening programme to identify more patients.

While generally supportive of the approach, the 36 health professionals interviewed had concerns about accommodating such a scheme within their services, particularly around the extra staffing and resources needed to carry out the screening programme.

The researchers therefore suggest that additional administrators and clinicians need to be provided to support targeted searches and perform the diagnostic tests. Only then can millions more COPD patients get a diagnosis and treatment earlier.

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