Postcode lottery of GP lung tests 'leaving thousands undiagnosed'

Alarm over postcode lottery of GP surgery lung tests due ‘scandalous’ shortage which leaves thousands undiagnosed, charity warns

  • Postcode lottery for lung disease tests is leaving thousands undiagnosed
  • Charity Asthma + Lung UK will publish findings on COPD tests next month

A ‘scandalous’ shortage of tests for lung disease is leaving thousands undiagnosed and missing out on vital treatment, says a leading charity.

In a report to be published next month, Asthma + Lung UK will warn of a postcode lottery for accessing a test for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a group of serious lung conditions that affect around 1.2 million people in Britain.

The test, called spirometry, involves breathing into a machine that measures how much you exhale in one breath. This reveals how healthy the lungs are and, in some cases, whether medication will improve symptoms.

GPs need a result from this test to refer patients for specialist treatment.

But too few GP surgeries do the test, Dr Andy Whittamore, clinical lead for Asthma + Lung UK, told the doctors’ magazine Pulse.

A ‘scandalous’ shortage of tests for lung disease is leaving thousands undiagnosed and missing out on vital treatment, says a leading charity (stock photo)

He said: ‘In the pandemic spirometry stopped and we had a big shift in the respiratory nurse workforce who dropped out of primary care.’

Now, he added, health authorities are too cash-strapped to fund the tests and staff. ‘I can’t see them throwing a lot of money into this,’ he said. ‘There are patients who are not getting a test.

‘They might be getting the wrong treatment or no treatment at all as they haven’t got the right diagnosis.’ Last year, the charity found that nearly one in four COPD victims waits at least five years for a diagnosis.

London-based GP Dr Rammya Mathew told Pulse the problem is ‘nothing short of a scandal’.

She said: ‘We have had no access in our borough for months now. Specialist services won’t see our patients without a diagnosis.’

COPD, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, develops when lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed, making breathing difficult.

It is commonest in those who have smoked but non-smokers can develop it too. Early diagnosis is vital, as many treatments are only effective in the early stages of the disease.

Early diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is vital, as many treatments, including inhalers (pictured) are only effective in the early stages of the disease

These include inhalers and medicines, as well as pulmonary rehabilitation, a programme of exercise and education. For some, the only effective treatment is major surgery or a lung transplant.

Experts say in some areas, nurses and healthcare assistants have been trained to perform spirometry, but this is not widespread across the UK.

In February, The Mail on Sunday warned that asthma patients were missing out on an essential test to see if medication is working.

A device, called a feNO test, can spot when lungs are overworked – a common asthma symptom. But NHS chiefs have not agreed to buy the test for GP surgeries, due to the cost.

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