Trends and district variations in the pre-hospital and hospital care of children aged 0-14 years admitted with acute asthma were surveyed in all 13 districts of a health region by examining case notes for 1970, 1978, and 1985. From 1970 to 1985 there was a substantial increase in admissions and some reduction of hospital stay. Over this time adrenergic drugs remained the most frequently used treatment with a large shift towards selective beta2 agonists administered by nebulisation. Use of corticosteroids fell in the under 5s with a decrease in the parenteral route of administration but rose in the 5-14 age group with an increase in the oral route of administration. There was an increase the use of oral xanthines but this was outweighed by falls in the use of suppositories and in parenteral administration. The use of antibiotics became less frequent and that of sedatives and antihistamines fell to almost nil. There were also important changes in other aspects of management, notably an increase in the use of lung function tests (from 3% to 70%) and falls in the use of chest radiographs, blood tests, bacteriology, and physiotherapy. In nearly all aspects of management there were significant and often very extreme variations in practice between districts, which were unlikely to be explained by differences in morbidity. These variations would be a suitable focus for medical audit, with the aim of establishing which treatment regimens have the best outcome and avoiding unnecessary cost and discomfort. Because early hospital drug treatment is closely related to the type of treatment given before admission such audit activities would need to include general practitioners.
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