Maggie Throup sits on the Health Select Committee and is Member of Parliament for Erewash.
If you asked someone on the street why visits to hospital increased over winter months, I think they’d be more likely to say it’s people slipping on ice than a spike in lung disease. But a report this week by the British Lung Foundation showed just how significant lung disease is for our winter pressures in the NHS.
Not only is lung disease one of the most common causes of admissions to A&E, they are almost unique in their seasonality – there are 80 per cent more hospital admissions for lung disease in the winter months of December, January, and February than the spring months of March, April and May.
This means more patients waiting for treatment and extra pressure on our hardworking emergency doctors and nurses.
It’s not an issue that goes completely unnoticed. Last year, when the Health Committee held an inquiry into winter pressures, one area reported that 80 per cent of admissions at certain winter periods were for lung disease.
The critical question to ask is whether we are doing enough to help people stay out of hospital, and adapt our services to deal with this winter rise? I’m not sure we are.
While we pride ourselves on having an internationally high uptake of the flu vaccine in the over-65s, last year less than half of the three million particularly at-risk people with lung conditions received a flu jab.
It’s recognised that early diagnosis is an area that needs to be prioritised, and it is important that charities such as the British Lung Foundation continue to fund respiratory symptom awareness campaigns. However, the benefits are limited when most people with lung conditions don’t receive the basic care that helps them to manage their condition once they are diagnosed.
For example, there is still a postcode lottery in access to pulmonary rehabilitation, a programme of exercise and education which helped my mother to manage her condition, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis [IPF]. Even in disease areas where this treatment is recommended in NICE guidelines, such as IPF, only 34 per cent of eligible people are referred on to it.
We see the results in A&E and in the lives of patients. They don’t just have an increased risk of their condition ‘flaring up’, they live without the understanding of their condition which would empower them to fight it.
Although hospitals know there is going to be a winter spike in lung disease admissions, very few formally recognise it. The vast majority have the same number of ward beds for respiratory patients all year round. Once these fill up over winter, people with lung disease are moved anywhere in the hospital where there is space.
This doesn’t sound like a recipe for consistent care. Why not earmark beds in areas of the hospital which are recognised as being quieter in winter?
If we want to improve care for patients and reduce the burden lung disease places on our health services, we need a plan to transform treatment all year round. The British Lung Foundation have recently established an independent taskforce for lung health. Next year, this group of charities and medical professional organisations will be consulting on and drawing up a five year strategy to improve care and outcomes for people with lung disease. I can see why they’ve set this up.
There are great innovations in respiratory care and technology happening all across the UK. However, we are not coordinated enough in sharing this good practice and as a result, our outcomes for lung disease are amongst the worst in the developed world. A joined up, national strategy would help to start turning this around.
Our manifesto made an important promise: “Our commitment to consistent high quality care for everyone applies to all conditions. We will set new standards in some priority areas and also improve our response to historically underfunded and poorly understood disease groups.”
This description could not more accurately describe the way people with COPD, lung cancer, pneumonia, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and other lung conditions feel that they are treated. They know they’ve been overlooked for decades. Let it be our Government that ends that historic neglect by committing to a new plan for lung health.