BACKGROUND: Assessing the reversibility of airflow obstruction by peak expiratory (PEF) measurements would be practicable in general practice, but its usefulness has not been investigated. METHODS: PEF measurements were performed (miniWright peak flow meter) in 73 general practice patients (aged 40 to 84) with a history of asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease before and after 400 micrograms inhaled sulbutamol. The change in PEF was compared with the change in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1). Reversible airflow obstruction was analysed in two ways according to previous criteria. When defined as a 9% or greater increase in FEV1 expressed as a percentage of predicted values reversibility was observed in 42% of patients. Relative operating characteristic analysis showed that an absolute improvement in PEF of 60 l/min or more gave optimal discrimination between patients with reversible and irreversible airflow obstruction (the sensitivity and specificity of an increase of 60 l/min in detecting a 9% or more increase in FEV1 as a percentage of predicted values were 68% and 93% respectively, with a positive predictive value of 87%). When defined as an increase of 190 ml or more in FEV1, reversible airflow obstruction was observed in 53% of patients. Again an absolute improvement in PEF of 60 l/min or more gave optimal discrimination between patients with reversible and irreversible airflow obstruction (sensitivity 56%, specificity 94%, and positive predictive value 92%). CONCLUSION: Absolute changes in PEF can be used as a simple technique to diagnose reversible airflow obstruction in patients from general practice.
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