BACKGROUND: It is hypothesised that, despite recent initiatives to improve asthma self-management including asthma education, detailed investigation of the sequence of events culminating in hospital admission will lead to the identification of important management errors and thus the likelihood that the majority of severe asthma attacks are preventable by currently available strategies, and that psychological, health care and socioeconomic factors are risk factors for such management errors. METHODS: A cross sectional study was undertaken of 138 patients aged 15-50 years admitted to hospital (general ward or intensive care unit) with acute severe asthma who were assessed within 24-72 hours of admission using a number of previously validated instruments. A detailed history of events of the attack was assessed against predetermined criteria for non or delayed use of oral corticosteroids and non or delayed use of emergency ambulance services. RESULTS: Subjects had evidence of severe chronic asthma and had acute severe asthma at presentation (n = 90, pH = 7.3 (0.2), PaCO2 = 7.2 (5.0) kPa) but duration of hospital stay was short (3.7 (2.6) days). Serious management errors occurred very frequently and most were deemed to have been made by the patient. Forward stepwise regression revealed that delayed or non-use of oral corticosteroids was predicted independently by lack of paying job (p = 0.02), high total use of inhaled beta agonists in the 24 hours before index admission (p = 0.04), loss of a job in the last year (p = 0.04), low frequency of use of oral corticosteroids in the last year (p = 0.06), concerns during the index attack about medical expenses (p = 0.07), and delay in the use of ambulance services (p = 0.05)--the model being responsible for 23% of the variance. Delayed or non-summoning of emergency ambulance services was predicted independently by total life events (p = 0.03), having something stolen in the last year (p = 0.003), panic during the index attack (p = 0.01), and concerns during the index attack about taking time off work (p = 0.07)--the model being responsible for 21% of the variance. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study show that, despite recent educational advances, serious management errors are common in those admitted to hospital with acute severe asthma and that most management errors relate to patient self-management behaviour. Serious management errors are predicted by a variety of socio-economic and psychological factors. While the results of this study are consistent with the widely held view that most acute severe attacks are theoretically preventable, the challenge for the future is to change patients' behaviour in the face of considerable adverse socioeconomic and psychological factors.
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