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NIH Survey: COPD Awareness Returns to 2008 Levels

Physicians say major barrier to diagnosis is under-reported symptoms (Nov. 20)

Awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been increasing gradually in recent years, but the results of a survey conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, show that current awareness levels have returned to those of 2008.

In the national survey, 65% of adults reported that they have heard of COPD, compared with 71% in 2011. Among people most at risk for COPD, awareness stood at 74% for current smokers and at 73% for former smokers; in 2011 these values were 78% and 76%, respectively.

COPD — which in 2010 surpassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. — is a serious and progressive lung disease that makes breathing difficult and can affect the patient's quality of life. COPD includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and has been diagnosed in an estimated 12 million men and women in the U.S., with just as many more likely remaining undiagnosed.

“COPD is the only major chronic disease where deaths are not decreasing, which makes it critical for people to understand whether they are at risk for it and recognize its symptoms as early as possible,” said James P. Kiley, PhD, director of the NHLBI’s Division of Lung Diseases. “COPD can be treated — but the challenge is that more than 1 in 3 Americans do not know what it is or what its health outcomes are.”

In 2007, the NHLBI, along with leading professional societies, health organizations, and advocacy groups, launched the COPD Learn More Breathe Better campaign to raise public awareness and understanding of COPD. The campaign encourages people at risk for COPD to get a simple diagnostic breathing test and to talk to their healthcare providers about selecting treatment options; the campaign also encourages those diagnosed with COPD to take personal ownership of and responsibility for their overall care and treatment plans.

COPD develops slowly, and its symptoms — which can include shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing, the production of excess sputum, or a feeling of being unable to take a deep breath — are often mistaken for a consequence of aging or of being out of shape. Therefore, many people dismiss their symptoms early on and delay seeking diagnosis and treatment until the disease is in its late stages.

According to the results of a parallel survey of healthcare providers, 48% of primary care physicians say that one of the biggest barriers to diagnosing COPD is that patients do not fully report these kinds of symptoms.

COPD most often occurs in people aged 40 years and older with a history of smoking. However, as many as 1 in 6 people with COPD have never smoked. COPD also can occur in people with a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or through long-term exposure to substances that can irritate the lungs, such as dust or fumes. COPD is diagnosed with a simple spirometry test, which can be conducted in a physician’s office.

The new survey results represent a sample of 4,703 consumers and another sample of 1,000 physicians. Both surveys were conducted in the summer of 2012.

Source: NIH; November 20, 2012.

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