Alarm has been raised over a decline in the number of respiratory hospital appointments and lung condition diagnoses during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the Taskforce for Lung Health, there were 107,930 fewer hospital appointments for respiratory issues in England between March 2020 and March 2021, compared with the pre-pandemic yearly average.
The number of expected appointments taking place in April 2020 was down 85%.
The taskforce suggested there was not enough capacity in the NHS to see and support all of the patients who need care, which could lead to worsening symptoms and increased deaths.
Their survey of 4,752 people, conducted with charities Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, found that a quarter of people diagnosed with lung conditions in the past year had to wait six months for a diagnosis and 20% had to wait a year.
One in five people have been on a waiting list for care for more than a year, they found.
Even if capacity returns to pre-pandemic levels, the backlog of patients needing respiratory care means that services will still be unable to support the number of people with a suspected lung condition, the taskforce warned.
Alison Cook, chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health and director of external affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “The heart-breaking reality of these figures is that some people will die before they find out what’s wrong with them. That’s why any delays to lung disease diagnosis and treatment are simply unacceptable. People shouldn’t be waiting up to a year to get a diagnosis, or waiting months for treatment and care. We must address this, now.
“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.”
For example, those with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which has a life expectancy of three to five years after diagnosis, are only able to receive life-extending treatment after diagnosis. As diagnosis and treatment is delayed, outcomes become significantly worsened.
“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,” said Steve Jones, chair of trustees at Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis.
“With Covid this has risen sharply with diagnostic testing facilities at hospitals closed or unable to operate fully. There is now a backlog with patients waiting for diagnosis and tests and unable to access life extending anti-fibrotic medicines.”
The taskforce has called on the government to urgently establish specialist diagnostic 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. In May, too, it called for an urgent review of respiratory staffing levels as the pandemic subsides.