£1bn could be saved by NHS over next decade if doctors diagnosed chronic lung diseases earlier

Experts say that patients often dismiss their symptoms as 'smoker's cough'

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, researchers have found.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is known to affect 900,000 people in the UK, but the numbers could be significantly higher because of under-diagnosis. Experts say that patients often dismiss their symptoms as “smoker’s cough”.

To investigate the scale of under-detection, researchers looked at 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 presented with symptoms, which were not investigated further, even earlier. 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 study, carried out by researchers at the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula School of Medicine and Dentistry, is published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal today.

Its author Dr Rupert Jones said that the first signs of lung disease should prompt further tests, including with a spirometer – a machine which measures breathing to determine whether airways are obstructed – but that his was not happening in nearly enough cases.

“The substantial numbers of patients misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed in this study is a cause for concern…” he said. “Both general practitioners and patients are failing to recognise the significance of symptoms.”

COPD is the collective name for a number of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema, the chief causes of which are smoking. Symptoms include breathlessness during activity, a persistent cough and regular chest infections. It is important to be diagnosed as early as possible to prevent further damage to the lungs which can lead to serious illness and death. It can usually be treated by quitting smoking, but treatments such as inhalers are also available.

The Department of Health has estimated that £1bn could be saved for the NHS over 10 years if COPD was diagnosed earlier.

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