14 million Americans may have undiagnosed COPD

Saturday, August 31, 2002

ATLANTA — About 14 million Americans may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and not even know it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month.

Ten million adults were listed as diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2000. Of those, about 1.5 million adults visited emergency rooms due to COPD-related conditions, 726,000 were hospitalized and 119,000 died, according to the CDC

In addition, data from a large government study — the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III — estimates 14 million adults suffer from the condition without diagnosis, bring the total for COPD to 24 million Americans. The CDC is encouraging physicians to test lung function in current and former smokers and anybody with respiratory problems.

Encouraging is one thing, getting them to do it is another, said Dr. Tom Petty, a pioneer in the field of home respiratory therapy.

"It's a simple message but a hard sell," said Petty, who estimated the number of undiagnosed COPD patients at about 16 million. "I think pulmonologist have kept spirometry a secret. I think we have mystified it. But it's no more difficult than taking a blood pressure."

Even if it is their secret, with only, 10,000 pulmonologist in the United States, there's no way they could begin to make a dent in reducing the numbers of undiagnosed COPD patients. That job will fall to the nation's 220,000 primary care physicians, if they can be convinced to administer a test they have typically shunned, Petty said.

One reason people do not realize they have COPD is it is "a silent disease," said Barry Make, director of the emphysema program at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. People are often in the early stages of disease and do not have symptoms, so it's hard to know to get tested."

Make recommends all smokers or former smokers over 40 have their lung function tested, especially if they exhibit "smoker's cough," a sign of bronchitis. People with shortness of breath should also get tested, he said. HME