Northern Ireland

Over a quarter of COPD sufferers in north had early symptoms dismissed, survey finds

Antrim's Rebecca Boyle with her late father Billy, who died in 2018.
Antrim's Rebecca Boyle with her late father Billy, who died in 2018.

PATIENTS with potentially fatal lung diseases in the north have struggled to get a diagnosis as their symptoms are dismissed as "just a cough", it has been warned.

A survey by the charity Asthma + Lung UK NI found over a quarter of respondents (26%) with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) said their main barrier to getting diagnosed was having their symptoms dismissed as a simple cough or a chest infection.

They also found only 8% of COPD patients feel they are receiving recommended levels of care.

Following the publication of their annual Life with a Lung Condition survey on Wednesday - World COPD Day - the charity has called for a Lung Health Strategy to be delivered in the north "urgently".

It is estimated over 42,000 people in Northern Ireland have COPD, which is an umbrella term for conditions including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Rebecca Boyle, from Antrim, lost her father Billy to COPD in 2018, and is among those calling for better understanding of the disease.

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“Watching someone you love gasping desperately for air every minute of the day was traumatic. It made you feel powerless," she said of her father and "best friend", who was a former primary school caretaker.

“He was diagnosed around ten years before he passed away from COPD aged 72. Initially, we weren’t bothered by it. We had no idea what it was and because the doctor didn’t seem too concerned or didn’t send him home with lots of medication or information, we just didn’t think about it.

“It wasn’t until several years after my dad was diagnosed that he started going to have his lungs checked at his GP on a yearly basis. He was called for pulmonary rehabilitation around eight years after he was diagnosed, but by that point it was too late, and he wasn’t able for it."

She added: “No one ever explained to us that my dad was terminal or how the disease would progress. There needs to be a lot more awareness of COPD. We had no idea that the disease would kill my dad."

Head of Asthma + Lung UK NI, Joseph Carter, said: “Sadly, Rebecca isn’t alone as lung disease remains the third leading cause of death in Northern Ireland. It’s shocking that people’s symptoms are being dismissed as just a cough and many are having to give up work because they are struggling to breathe.

He added: "We urgently need a Lung Health Strategy to help tackle lung disease head on and improve livelihoods, especially during the cost-of-living crisis. More people with lung conditions are struggling, having to give up work and at risk of their condition worsening.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said it was developing a Respiratory Care Improvement Plan for the north in partnership with the Public Health Agency.

"A stakeholder event on 26th October 2023 agreed the work plan. Attention to the areas of asthma, paediatric services, interstitial lung disease and primary care diagnostics will be the first diseases to be considered," they said.

"Next Spring, we hope to launch work programmes to consider COPD, Sleep Apnoea, Non-invasive ventilation, home oxygen and community services and a range of regional services."