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Breathlessness patients should have diagnosis and care plan within six months, says NHS England

Most patients presenting with breathlessness should have a diagnosis and comprehensive treatment plan in place with six months, a support tool published by NHS England to reduce variation in care says.

Breathlessness is associated with high use of healthcare services accounting for 4% of GP consultations and 5% of emergency department attendances, NHS England said.

Yet despite the burden to the patient and the NHS, delays to diagnosis and misdiagnosis are common, the toolkit notes.

This includes 58% of patients with COPD who present with respiratory symptoms for over five years before diagnosis, as well as 41% of patients with heart failure.

A timely approach

Patients with chronic breathlessness are likely to need multiple investigations and should be provided with self-management advice, have lifestyle issues addressed and support for mental health from the first presentation, the guidance states.

Timeliness is key with a proactive approach to reassessment rather than waiting for patients to keep highlighting their breathlessness, it says, and in a third of patients the cause will be multifactorial.

The guidance sets out diagnostic pathway for initial investigations of chronic breathlessness lasting more than eight weeks including ECG, spirometry and FeNO with suggestions for further tests should be diagnosis be unclear.

Referral to respiratory physician or cardiologist is the third step should other investigations provide no explanation, the pathway says.

‘If there is no obvious cause(s) for breathlessness after robust investigation, fitness and lifestyle factors should be addressed,’ the toolkit continues. ‘Consider referral for therapeutic interventions for alcohol reduction, weight management, physical activity improvement and psychosocial support.’

It notes the guidance is not intended to override clinical judgment in individual cases.

Some COPD patients waiting a decade

In its annual report on COPD care, Asthma and Lung UK said almost a quarter of patients wait five year or more before their condition is diagnosed and 12% of 6,500 patients surveyed had waited more than a decade. 

Some community diagnostic centres have been piloting the use of a pre-diagnosis breathlessness pathway, the charity said, but this approach now needs to be rolled out nationally as a matter of urgency.

The goal would be for any patients presenting with breathlessness with no obvious diagnosis to be referred to a diagnostic hub to have an assessment by heart, respiratory and mental health experts before onward specialist referral and treatment where necessary. 

Dr Daryl Freeman, Primary Care Respiratory Society committee member and associate clinical director at Norfolk Community Health & Care said: ‘The NHSE breathlessness pathway is an opportunity to fine tune primary care diagnosis of breathlessness and look at how they can develop their PCN hublets or refer into community based diagnostic hubs if they exist.

‘The algorithm is useful I feel and is particularly useful for allied health professionals looking after patients with new onset breathlessness.’

This story was originally published by our sister publication Pulse.

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