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New plans could help hidden lung disease sufferers in the North East

23 per cent of people with a potentially fatal lung-disease in the North East who have not been diagnosed could now be identified and treated thanks to a new action plan for respiratory problems.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is mainly caused by smoking. It kills around 23,000 people per year, making it the UK’s fifth biggest killer disease.

The Department of Health today published A Companion Document to the Outcomes Strategy for COPD and Asthma, which if followed across the NHS could save an estimated 7,800 lives annually.

The NHS currently spends £1 billion a year treating COPD, but implementing the top five actions for COPD patients alone could lead to savings of nearly £1/2 billion over ten years. It costs nearly ten times more to treat severe COPD than the mild form of the disease, so improved diagnosis rates will save money.

Around 3.2m adults have COPD but an estimated 70 percent - 2.1m people – go undiagnosed. In the North East 23 per cent of people are undiagnosed. Giving those people a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is a priority for the NHS.

Health Minister Simon Burns said:

“Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one of the UK’s hidden killers. Around two million people do not have a proper diagnosis or get proper treatment.

“COPD causes irreversible lung damage and often by the time people are correctly diagnosed it’s too late. The earlier we catch the disease, the better.

“Respiratory diseases are a top priority and we’re encouraging GPs to look for patients who are at risk and make sure they’re properly tested and diagnosed. Better quality care is cheaper care – with proper diagnosis and treatment we can make a big difference in the quality of life for people with COPD and asthma, and save the NHS money at the same time.”

NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson said:

“There are an estimated three million people living with COPD in England, and we want to ensure that best practice is used to improve outcomes for those with COPD and asthma.

"We continue to improve our approach to COPD to one which is proactive and preventative and today’s document will give the NHS additional tools to follow the best practice in diagnosing, treating and managing the condition from its early stages."

Dame Helena Shovelton, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, said:

“This new action plan shows that the government is serious about fulfilling the promises made in last year’s COPD and asthma strategy, which we campaigned so long to bring about.

“If left untreated, COPD gets worse over time and can leave people so short of breath that even simple tasks, like getting dressed or walking round the house, can be a real struggle. By looking to improve diagnosis and treatment, this new action plan will therefore not just save lives, but could dramatically improve the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of COPD sufferers nationwide.”

The North East launched a major stop smoking campaign in 2011 from Fresh with support from respiratory specialists and the British Lung Foundation aimed at raising awareness among smokers about the risks of COPD.

Ailsa Rutter, Director of Fresh, said:

“We absolutely welcome this new action plan – there is clearly a need to do more to raise awareness about COPD and identify cases earlier.

“Last year Fresh ran a campaign with support from the British Lung Foundation and many people with the disease told us they wished they had known more about the disease and its links to smoking when they were younger. This helped the region have a record breaking Q3 rise in quitters for Stop Smoking Services.”

A key part of the new strategy is reducing the variation in COPD diagnosis and care around the country. The north of England has much better diagnosis rates than the south, but also the highest death rates from COPD.

Once patients have been diagnosed doctors can keep them better for longer, for example by using ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’, special exercises or physiotherapy which helps strengthen the lungs.

The NHS should also provide the right interventions when COPD is more serious, and people have an ‘attack’ of COPD (known as an exacerbation), which can lead to further lung damage. This can be through better provision of a form of artificially aided breathing, called non-invasive ventilation, in hospitals.

The new guidance covers both COPD and asthma as the two diseases can be confused due to similar symptoms. Understanding the similarities and differences will help doctors properly treat the two conditions.