Testing lung health online: an interview with Professor Stephen Holgate

Prof. Stephen HolgateTHOUGHT LEADERS SERIES…insight from the world’s leading experts

Interview conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Cantab)

How many people are thought to be living with lung disease and why are many people unaware of their poor lung health?

In our latest report – The Battle for Breath – the impact of lung disease in the UK, figures suggest that 1 in 5 (around 12.7 million) have been diagnosed with a lung condition in the UK. If you’re over the age of 70, this rises to 1 in 3.

© British Lung Foundation

Poor lung health can sometimes come on gradually and people adjust their life around it. For example, a key sign of lung disease is increasing breathlessness. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people tend to modify their behavior and adjust to their breathlessness rather than getting medical advice. They may stop doing something they normally do and just accept the breathlessness as normal.

Breathlessness is different to pain for example where people usually do seek help. Breathlessness is a symptom that normally only comes on with exertion, so people sometimes start doing less instead of seeking advice.

The point is people don’t know when they’ve crossed the line between what’s normal and what’s abnormal. The British Lung Foundation’s questionnaire enables people to determine this through a small number of questions.

© British Lung Foundation

Can you please outline the online ‘breath test’ the British Lung Foundation are running to raise awareness of lung health. How does the test work?

Listen to your lungs is the BLF’s public health campaign to find the millions of people who are living with undiagnosed lung disease. The campaign will encourage people not to ignore feeling breathless doing everyday tasks and to take a simple online breath test to see if they might need to see a GP.  

People are asked to answer ten questions based around the Medical Research Council breathlessness scale. This test will support the campaign by helping people decide if they need to see a GP. The aim is to reassure people who don’t have a problem and guide those with significant breathlessness to make an appointment with their GP. To take the breath test visit: www.blf.org.uk/breathtest

Listen to your lungs supports the launch of Public Health England’s national Be Clear on Cancer campaign on 14 July, raising awareness of persistent cough and inappropriate breathlessness as possible symptoms of lung disease, including lung cancer, and heart disease.

© British Lung Foundation

Where can people access the test and what feedback does it give?

The breath test is online here: www.blf.org.uk/breathtest

The test provides an overview of a person’s general health and wellbeing. If a person scores 1 or above they are advised to visit their GP and given some pointers in helping to improve their health, for example taking more exercise, giving up smoking and losing weight.

Why was the test recently launched at the House of Commons?

This launch forms the basis of our parliamentary campaign to increase awareness of lung disease in the UK among our policy and public officials. We launched with support from the Public Health for England Minister, Jane Ellison MP, the Chair of All Party Parliamentary on Respiratory health, Stephen McPartland.

© British Lung Foundation

What impact do you hope the test will have?

We hope to have at least 100,000 people taking the test and following the advice to improve their lung health. This may increase the number of people diagnosed with lung conditions and provides a prevention and early diagnosis focus.

Who should take the test?

Anyone who feels breathless doing everyday tasks. Lung disease does not discriminate and could develop in any age, socio-economic group and race.

A child can have asthma for example, they may get breathless and wake up at night or when they exercise. Cancer, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, bronchiectasis, pulmonary hypertension are among many other lung conditions which may present as breathlessness.

© British Lung Foundation

Getting people to the GP in the first instance is crucial. It is also important to raise awareness amongst healthcare professionals too to make sure that when people raise concerns about breathlessness, they investigate further for an underlying lung disease.

Have healthcare professionals been informed about the test?

Yes, the British Lung Foundation have sent breathlessness packs to every GP practice in the UK. We’ll also be working with healthcare professional organizations later in the year to help raise awareness.

© British Lung Foundation

What signs of lung disease should people be concerned about?

There are many signs of lung disease, the main ones are breathlessness and cough that lasts over 3 weeks and doesn’t improve after medication or significant breathlessness doing everyday tasks.

How can people know what’s normal versus abnormal?

It’s abnormal when people experience breathlessness on doing normal daily activities. Each person has their own normal daily routine.

Instead of cutting back their activity due to the breathlessness they should visit their doctor.

How can people differentiate between declining lung function from normal aging and lung disease?

Declining lung function due to ageing happens very gradually to us all over many years. In this Campaign of increasing awareness, we’re talking about changes that can happen gradually but more severely or much more quickly over weeks or months for example.

© British Lung Foundation

Should an individual visit their GP if they experience breathlessness when carrying out a normal, everyday activity?

That depends on how active they are. We would advise them to take the breath test first, it will tell them if they need to be worried or make an appointment with their GP.

Where can readers find more information on the online lung test and lung health?

Visit: www.blf.org.uk details of the campaign and our statistic on lung health are available to view.

Can you please outline how you’re working with Public Health England?

Public Health England want to increase the diagnosis of lung disease as well so they are launching their own initiative on breathlessness, which includes breathlessness as a potential symptom of lung and heart disease as well as cancer. It is rare that breathlessness is a sole symptom of lung cancer; other symptoms include cough and weight loss.

© British Lung Foundation

Where can readers find more information?

Visit our website: www.blf.org.uk

The British Lung Foundation also have a helpline: 03000 030 555

We’ll also be providing details on our social media pages through Facebook and Twitter.

About Professor Stephen Holgate

Professor Stephen Holgate is Medical Research Council (MRC) Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Southampton, UK.

Stephen spent two years at Harvard Medical School to acquire skills in allergic disease mechanisms. On returning to Southampton, Stephen set up a research group focused on the mechanisms of asthma.

He is a past president of the British Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and British Thoracic Society.