Abysmal testing for lung conditions in the UK

Given 20% of the UK population will suffer a long condition in their lifetime (according to Asthma and Lung UK), it is a huge shame that there is a lack of simple tests at GP surgeries for lung conditions.

Every breath we take is a gift of life, yet for those suffering from lung conditions, even the simplest of breaths can be a challenge. Asthma and Lung UK has recently highlighted a concerning issue plaguing the UK's healthcare system—a lack of straightforward tests that hinder general practitioners (GPs) from making precise diagnoses for common lung conditions. This situation could have dire consequences for both patients and the NHS, particularly as winter approaches and respiratory illnesses become more prevalent.

The silent struggle

According to the Asthma and Lung UK charity, one in five people is affected by a lung condition at some point in their lives. These conditions encompass asthma, as well as various forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Lung disease, the third-largest killer in the UK, silently claims lives, trailing behind only cancer and heart diseases.

Diagnostic Dilemma

The challenge lies in the lack of accessible diagnostic tools. Tests such as peak-flow measurements, spirometry tests to gauge lung airflow, and fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) tests measuring nitric oxide levels—indicative of lung inflammation—can provide valuable insights into lung function. However, many GP surgeries find themselves unable to afford these tests, forcing GPs to rely on educated guesses when diagnosing lung conditions.

A patient’s perspective

Lucie Irwin's story covered in a BBC article sheds light on the consequences of misdiagnosis. Initially prescribed an asthma inhaler, she found no relief and faced a bewildering array of treatments. Eventually, she was burdened with multiple tablets and inhalers, which did little to alleviate her suffering. Her life spiralled into a cycle of hospital visits and cancelled plans with friends and family.

However, social media provided a lifeline. Following the advice of fellow asthma patients, Lucie sought testing. The results revealed eosinophilic asthma, requiring an injectable immunosuppressant drug—a game-changer that gave her life back.

Hidden costs and missed diagnosis

It is suggested that up to 750,000 people in England may be misdiagnosed with asthma, costing the government an estimated £132 million annually. Moreover, an additional £2.2 billion is spent on avoidable hospital stays and treatments for patients with undiagnosed asthma, who either suffer life-threatening attacks or develop incurable lung diseases.

Lung conditions already strain the NHS, costing a staggering £11 billion each year, with COPD ranking as the second most common cause of emergency hospital admissions. These conditions exacerbate winter pressures, as patients become more susceptible to respiratory viruses and cold temperatures.


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