The Taskforce for Lung Health in calling for early and accurate diagnosis for people with suspected lung disease after a survey found that even before the pandemic, one in three (29%) people waited for more than six months for a diagnosis.

It wants to ensure that everyone living with a suspected lung condition and therefore potentially with an increased risk from Covid-19, is given the appropriate support and care for years to come.

The survey of more than 5,300 people with lung conditions in England by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation highlights the shortfalls in respiratory care to date, and the scale of the improvements needed. 

In the UK as a whole outcomes for lung disease have seen no improvement in over ten years, in large part due to delays patients face in receiving a diagnosis and therefore, in starting treatments.

The survey also showed that in England, over half of people with lung conditions (52%) reported being less fit since the first lockdown in March, and one in five (21%) reported feeling “often” isolated from other people. Notably, more than a third of people (35%) reported that they had their pulmonary rehabilitation classes cancelled, with approximately 15% suggesting they had accessed alternative, remote options for the treatment. 

Diagnostic hubs important for patients with lung conditions

Sarah MacFadyen, Head of Policy at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “On top of delays to care, the fact that even before the pandemic, people were waiting longer than six months to get a diagnosis is simply unacceptable.

“Anyone living with a suspected lung condition should be able to get a diagnosis as soon as possible, especially as people with undiagnosed lung conditions are more likely to be at risk of contracting a severe case of Covid-19. Diagnostic hubs will have a big impact on turning the tide for people with lung conditions, but it is crucial that they are set up sooner, rather than later.”

The Taskforce added that although there have been some improvements to the number of people being referred for specialist appointments, routine referrals are still down 27% compared to pre-Covid levels. Urgent referrals have seen a better recovery but are still 11% lower, while the number of actual appointments booked in as a result of any referral is still down by nearly 60%.

It also revealed that some funding allocated to NHS England for respiratory care has been reallocated, and whilst there is an urgent need to spend on supporting people living with Long Covid, this could be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, meaning that even more people with lung conditions could risk missing out on an early and accurate diagnosis and treatment in years to come.

Dr Alison Cook, Chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health, said: “For too long, we have seen people with lung conditions struggle to receive the care they need. Supporting people with recovery from Covid-19 is essential, but all other respiratory diseases are still there and the problems people with lung conditions face are growing week by week.

“A lack of early and accurate diagnosis, limited access to treatments and care have meant that outcomes for people with lung disease have not improved in over ten years. We simply cannot expect people with lung conditions to shoulder the cost of the pandemic. It is absolutely crucial that we see the commitments made in the NHS Long Term Plan to improve respiratory care in the country met.”