A new analysis by The Taskforce for Lung Health has found that due to the pandemic, there have been 107,930 fewer hospital appointments for respiratory in England compared to the average number seen last year.

Furthermore, during the peak of the pandemic, the expected number of appointments was down by 85%.

The Taskforce have now warned that there is not enough capacity to see and support all of the patients who need care. If this is not urgently addressed, the Taskforce say people waiting for care will not only be left with life-limiting breathlessness and worsening symptoms, but may even be at risk of death before they are diagnosed and treated.

The analysis has been released alongside the results of a survey by members of the Taskforce, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. The survey spoke to 4,752 people with lung conditions and found that:

  • A quarter of people diagnosed with lung conditions in the past year had to wait six months for a diagnosis.
  • 1 in 5 (20%) people had to wait longer than a year for a diagnosis last year (2020)
  • Nearly a quarter (23%) of people experienced symptoms of a lung conditions for more than a year before seeking a diagnosis 
  • 1 in 5 people on waiting lists for care have been waiting for the care they need for more than a year

Even before the pandemic, lung disease patients were waiting too long for diagnosis and treatment 

These figures are concerning considering that conditions such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis have a life expectancy of three to five years, meaning any delays in diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death. 

The Taskforce stress that it is therefore crucial that people with suspected lung conditions have timely access to specialists who can support the diagnosis and ongoing management of their condition. 

Even before the pandemic, people who experienced worsening or particularly severe symptoms of lung disease had to wait too long to get referred to and seen by specialist teams, leaving them at risk of hospitalisation. The ever-growing backlog means that this problem is worsening and services will be unable to support the number of people in need, even if they return to pre-pandemic levels of capacity. 

Steve Jones, Chair of Trustees at Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis, said:  “This is a real concern for patients with pulmonary fibrosis. Even before the pandemic, it took on average seven months to be diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, with over 20% of people taking over a year.

“With Covid this has risen sharply with diagnostic testing facilities at hospitals closed or unable to operate fully. There is now a backlog of patients waiting for diagnosis and tests and unable to access life extending anti-fibrotic medicines.”

Specialist diagnostic hubs could provide a solution

Specialist diagnostic hubs have been cited as a solution to this problem and in 2019, the NHS said they would review diagnostic hubs through the independent Richards Review. However, the funding commitments in the spending review in 2020 didn't go far enough to ensure the development of these hubs at scale across the country. 

The Taskforce is therefore calling for urgency in establishing these hubs to address any backlogs to lung disease diagnosis, and for increased funding to ensure that everyone with a suspected lung condition can get diagnosed as soon as possible.

Alison Cook, Chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health and Director of External Affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “The pandemic has had catastrophic consequences for people living with lung conditions, but it is important to remember that well before these delays to care, outcomes for people with lung disease had not improved in over a decade. If funding lung disease care does not now become a top priority for the government and the NHS, again it will be patients who will pay the ultimate price”.