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One in 11 people in the UK has asthma, and far too many of them are dying from it. Lisa Salmon discovers how new digital health technology could help
THE number of people dying from asthma in Britain and Northern Ireland has reached its highest level in more than a decade – someone has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack every 10 seconds, and at least three people die each day from the condition in the UK as a whole.
Asthma UK says 1,468 people died from asthma attacks in 2015, an increase of 21 per cent compared to the year before.
Yet the charity says a treatment overhaul, including the widespread introduction of digital health technology (such as smart inhalers and electronic alerts) could prevent two thirds of the deaths, and significantly improve life for the one in 11 people in the UK who has asthma.
As well as reducing asthma deaths, a huge chunk of the £1.1 billion that asthma care costs the economy every year could be saved if new, already available, treatments were used throughout the NHS, says Asthma UK.
"The alarming increase in asthma deaths over the last decade is an urgent wake-up call to the government to take action to improve standards of asthma care now," says Kay Boycott, the organisation's chief executive. "A huge opportunity to do this lies in making already existing digital health technology more widely available on the NHS."
People with asthma describe an attack as being "like an elephant sitting on my chest" or "like breathing through a straw".
Physiologically, an asthma attack means the inner linings of the airways in the lungs become swollen and inflamed, leaving less room for air to get through.
The muscles around the airways tighten and excess mucous may be produced, further blocking the narrowed airways.
This all makes it much harder to breathe, leading to coughing and wheezing for some, others going pale and quiet. In a severe attack, airways can narrow so much that not enough oxygen can get into the blood, which can be very dangerous.
A new study, led by the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research at the University of Edinburgh, found the UK has one of the highest burdens of asthma in the world. There are around 6.4 million GP and nurse consultations for asthma each year, and more than 270 people are admitted to hospital each day because of asthma.
Asthma UK says better care, particularly the introduction of smart inhalers, digital asthma action plans and GPs receiving electronic alerts, will help improve asthmatics' lives.
"We strongly believe new technologies such as smart inhalers are the likely game changer that could reduce asthma attacks and ease the burden on the NHS," says Boycott, who points out that the Royal College of Physicians said 'complacency in asthma care must end' in its 2014 National Review of Asthma Deaths.
Boycott explains that smart inhalers link to smartphones and detect when an inhaler is used, tracking use in real-time.
"We're particularly excited by the early promise shown by sensors attached to inhalers linked via Bluetooth to a smartphone," she says.
"These track medication use in real-time, giving a stream of precision data to enable truly personalised solutions. Together with predictive algorithms, this could help clinicians remotely detect when a person's asthma is worsening and allow them to intervene to prevent an attack."
Asthma action plans – a written record of an asthmatic's medicines, symptoms, and what to do if they deteriorate – play a vital role in helping people manage their asthma. Indeed, asthmatics with action plans are four times less likely to end up in hospital due to their asthma. However, only 35 per cent of people have such a plan.
"Making these paper plans available in a digital format, and therefore instantly accessible via their smartphones or tablets, is a simple step that could significantly improve how well people manage their condition," she points out.
Apps that provide localised air pollution or pollen information are also available, enabling asthmatics to vary their plans or medication if potential triggers are predicted.
In addition, digital alerts notifying GPs when a patient attends A&E with an asthma attack would also ensure GPs have a full picture of each patient's asthma health, enabling them to tailor care accordingly.
"Digital technology could enable GPs to get an overall picture of the health of patients with asthma," says Boycott.
"Bearing in mind that 85 per cent of asthma patients are being treated in primary care at GP surgeries, digital health technology can also play a huge part in easing the burden on the already overstretched NHS budget.
"Reducing the number of routine GP appointments through improved care would also free time and better enable GPs to focus their attention on the people with asthma who are at the greatest risk.
"Stopping asthma attacks with new technology solutions can be good for both patients and clinicians."
Asthma UK says there are also several steps asthmatics can take to reduce the risk of an asthma attack. They are:
:: Take your medication as prescribed.
:: Follow a written asthma action plan.
:: Have regular asthma reviews with a GP or asthma nurse.
:: Check with your GP or asthma nurse that you're using your inhaler correctly.
:: Avoid the things that trigger your asthma where possible.
:: For advice about asthma, call the Asthma UK helpline on 0300 222 5800 or visit www.asthma.org.uk