The diagnosis and management of chronic respiratory symptoms was studied in all adults aged 40-70 years in a group general practice. A respiratory symptoms screening questionnaire was sent to 2387 men and women, of whom 1444 (85% of those who had not moved or died) responded. The 509 subjects reporting symptoms were sent a detailed questionnaire and invited to have their respiratory function tested. Of these, 324 (64%) responded, of whom 256 (79%) had spirometry. A diagnosis of chronic bronchitis was reported by 3.9% of the men and 2.1% of the women, and a diagnosis of asthma by 4.7% of the men and 3.3% of the women. Wheezing in the preceding year was reported by 18% of the men and 15% of the women, and 16.7% of the men and 7.1% of the women satisfied the Medical Research Council criteria for chronic bronchitis. Bronchodilator treatment was being taken by 12% of the patients with symptoms, regular cough linctus by 10%, and regular antibiotics by 5%. After the frequency and severity of respiratory symptoms had been controlled for wheezing patients reporting a diagnosis of asthma were prescribed bronchodilatory drugs three times more often than those labelled as having chronic bronchitis and 12 times more often than those without a diagnostic label. Eleven per cent of general practitioner consultations resulted in a referral to hospital. Referral was unrelated to the diagnosis given, but depended on the degree of respiratory disability and handicap experienced by the patient. Our findings confirm the relevance of the diagnostic label to the drug management of chronic wheezing disorders, but further investigation of the diagnostic process is needed to establish why some patients with severe wheeze remain untreated.
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