Long-term diseases are the leading cause of death in the UK - according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2013 there were over 360,000 deaths from long-term (chronic) diseases in England and Wales. That's 72 per cent of all registered deaths that year. Around 8 per cent of these deaths are caused by just one disease: COPD.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) claims the lives of around 30,000 people every year, making it the fifth biggest killer in the UK. It is estimated that up to three million people are living with the condition, however, many people have never heard of it.
COPD is an umbrella term encompassing a number of conditions including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It causes long-term damage to the lungs, resulting in breathing difficulties. People with COPD often get severely breathless. Simple things like climbing up stairs or putting on a pair of socks can become a tremendous challenge. Symptoms can also dramatically worsen if patients get a cold or if their condition isn't being managed properly, for example. This makes COPD the second most common cause of emergency hospital admission in the UK, with an estimated 94,000 admissions every year, costing the NHS over £800 million.
You would be forgiven for thinking that, considering these shocking figures, more was being done to raise awareness of COPD. You'll be surprised, then, to hear that of the estimated three million people with COPD in the UK, fewer than a million are diagnosed. This means that over two million people are living with this disease, undiagnosed, unaware and unassisted.
Raising awareness among the public so that they get symptoms checked out as early as possible, and supporting health care professionals to make earlier, accurate diagnoses is absolutely key if we are to find the 'missing millions' in the UK. Given how widespread COPD is, it seems odd that there are no questions or tests included in the Health Check to check for symptoms, even among smokers. At the same time, we must also improve prevention. Around 80 per cent of COPD cases are caused by smoking. If we are to really beat this disease we need to support local smoking cessation services, proven to be the most effective way of helping people to quit the habit.
World COPD Day (19 November) is about raising these questions and making sure that people have the necessary tools they need to take control of this disease. COPD patients need appropriate treatment and care, tailored to them so that they can successfully self-manage their condition. We also need tools available for people from diagnosis so that, together with their health care professional, they can access that treatment and care straight away. Many COPD patients will have other illnesses (co-morbidities): about 40 per cent of people with COPD also have heart disease, for example, and significant numbers have depression or an anxiety disorder. Tailored care, therefore, is absolutely essential in making sure a patient is being treated properly.
This World COPD Day the BLF, in partnership with the Primary Care Respiratory Society (PCRS), has created the first ever nationally available and fully comprehensive COPD patient passport to help patients and health care professionals keep a track of the condition's development. The passport aims to help health care professionals and COPD patients talk through the essential steps patients should be offered to ensure they can understand and manage their COPD as effectively as possible. An interactive online version of the passport will also be available for patients. They can answer a series of questions about their condition which will then generate a report for them to take along to their next medical visit - highlighting the care that they as an individual patient require.
This is just one way we can support COPD patients throughout the UK. But the fight is far from over. Cooperation and collaboration between local and national services and health charities is vital if we are to save the lives of thousands of people every year in the UK. The quality of life of someone living with COPD can be greatly improved if they are diagnosed early and receive the appropriate care. Let's give people the care and treatment they deserve and are entitled to. Let's find the missing millions and help them take back control of their lives.