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RespiratoryFeb 17, 2021

Charities claim patient care is being blighted by 'chronic understaffing' in respiratory teams

People with lung conditions say their symptoms are getting worse as they delay or avoid seeking help during the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was the message delivered Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of two charities – Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation – that surveyed more than 8,000 members on the topic last summer.

Photo Credit: Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation
Too many people are missing out on treatment due to Covid-19 and related issues

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Ms Woolnough said: ‘Demand for vital services such as pulmonary rehabilitation is only increasing with many people suffering from breathlessness linked to long Covid.

‘Failure to address these pressure points now will mean that people with suspected lung conditions are left waiting even longer for a referral, diagnosis and life-saving treatment to start.'

Respiratory departments are at the frontline of the pandemic and yet they are facing chronic understaffing and resource issues at a time when they are needed most [Sarah Woolnough, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation] Too few candidates to fill respiratory posts
Ms Woolnough continued: ‘Our research found that as many as one in five people with lung conditions experienced worse symptoms as a result of delaying or avoiding care during the pandemic.’

Even before the onset of the pandemic, respiratory professionals, such as physiotherapists, were in short supply and great demand, with many trusts unable to fill vacancies due to a lack of candidates.

‘Respiratory departments are at the frontline of the pandemic and yet they are facing chronic understaffing and resource issues at a time when they are needed most,’ Ms Woolnough noted. ‘It’s crucial that the UK’s respiratory workforce is better funded to help ensure that everyone is able to access the care and support they need.’

Ms Woolnough’s warnings were issued to coincide with the second ay of the British Thoracic Society’s (BTS) winter meeting.

Staff efforts have averted 'a catastrophe'
Society president Graham Burns said Covid-19 had highlighted the fact that respiratory staff have historically lacked the resources to deal adequately with one of the major killers in the UK and beyond.

‘Like with many other social injustices, Covid-19 has laid bare and amplified these inequalities. Respiratory clinics were, and still are, among the first to be cancelled due to staff being reassigned to Covid-care.

‘Respiratory teams will be managing the long tail of Covid-19 well after most other services will have returned to normal,' Dr Burn added.

'This crisis would have been a catastrophe were it not for the innovative spirit, and immense efforts, dedication and sacrifices of all the country’s healthcare workers, but by the nature of the disease the burden of the virus, has fallen and continues to fall most heavily on respiratory units.’

Respiratory support units
Many patients who are most affected by Covid-19-related symptoms are cared for in respiratory support units, run by specialist respiratory doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists and other allied professionals, for example. See: https://www.physioupdate.co.uk/news/innovative-respiratory-support-units-must-be-funded-and-rolled-out-across-the-uk-urges-the-bts/

While increasing the number of medical specialists in training each year is an obvious solution, it can take up to a decade to train a consultant from scratch, the BTS pointed out.

The BTS called for

· staff scheduling to reflect the seasonal imbalance of demand resulting from an increase in activity in winter
· service agreements to allow respiratory professionals to prioritise caring for respiratory patients and limit shifts to cover general and emergency medicine services
· a focus on outpatient work during the summer to reduce waiting times to a minimum and allow for some ‘slippage’ during winter, when there is increased demand
· more use of virtual clinics and wards, telehealth and other remote services


To find out more about the BTS, visit: https://www.brit-thoracic.org.uk

Author: Ian A McMillan
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