More than half of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do not understand their condition putting them at greater risk of being admitted to hospital during the pandemic.

The online review of 40,000 patients over six years by the British Lung Foundation – a member of the Taskforce for Lung Health – highlights the ongoing lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding lung disease in the country.

It warned that many people with COPD who are at risk of more severe effects of Covid-19 may not have had the necessary information in order to manage their existing condition and keep themselves well. Recent research shows that COPD was the fourth highest comorbidity in Covid-19 related hospital admissions worldwide. 

This is compounded by the large numbers of people with COPD who are still waiting for a diagnosis. More than one million people are estimated to be living with COPD without a diagnosis, making the scale of people with COPD who do not understand their condition much higher than 700,000, according to the Taskforce for Lung Health.

Many patients with COPD living without a diagnosis

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of objective tests for diagnosing lung disease has been limited, due to risks associated with the spread of coronavirus. Diagnosing conditions like COPD and asthma without appropriate tests can lead to incorrect diagnosis, particularly when people are living with more than one lung condition.

The taskforce says that immediate establishment of diagnostic hubs would ensure that people are diagnosed safely and quickly, without being put at increased risk of contracting Covid-19.

Alison Cook, chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health and director of external affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: Despite the fact that we have all become much more aware of the importance of having healthy lungs during the pandemic, people with lung conditions continue to be left behind in terms of getting early and accurate diagnosis, treatment and care.

“It is troubling to see that awareness of lung conditions is so low that even patients who have been diagnosed struggle to feel confident about what this means for them. Anyone who has become aware of persistent symptoms which may indicate lung disease should be able to access a diagnostic hub as soon as possible – patients and their families cannot afford to wait.”

COPD is a progressive condition but there are interventions which will slow the progression of the disease and help control symptoms, if given early. It is therefore vital that patients receive an accurate and timely diagnosis and immediate support to understand and manage their condition.

It is the second most common lung disease in the UK, after asthma. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in England, at least 527,941 people with severe COPD were advised to shield in order to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, which is more likely to be severe in patients with COPD.