High burden of undiagnosed breathlessness in Australian population

Wednesday, 12 Aug 2020

A national survey has found a high burden of breathlessness in the Australian population, including many people who do not have a diagnosis of respiratory or cardiovascular disease.

Almost one in ten people (9.5%) reported clinically significant breathlessness in response to an online survey of more than 10,072 adults conducted by the Australian Centre for Airway Disease Monitoring at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Sydney.

In findings presented at the ATS 2020 virtual meeting, Professor Helen Reddel and colleagues said the National Breathlessness Survey defined clinically significant breathlessness as being a score of 2 (“I walk slower than people of the same age on the level because of breathlessness or have to stop for breath at the same pace”) or higher on the modified Medical Research Council (mMRC)  grade.

The study found that more than half (523/961, 54.2%) of people who reported clinically significant breathlessness did not have a current respiratory or heart condition. Of this group, 42.3% had ‘fair or poor’ health according to Medical Outcomes Short Form 1 (SF1) criteria, and a median Dyspnoea-12 score of 5.

Of the survey respondents, 43% were over the age of 50 and 23% were current smokers. Overall, 16% of those surveyed reported  a current respiratory condition and 7% had a current heart condition.

Among all adults who had clinically important breathlessness, almost half reported their health status as fair or poor, compared with one fifth of those who did not have breathlessness.

The association between mMRC grade and both  dyspnoea severity and  health grade was significantly stronger for people with a respiratory or heart condition compared to those without.

“There is a substantial burden of breathlessness among those without a self-reported current respiratory or heart condition,” the study investigators concluded.

“This suggests underdiagnosis of these conditions or alternative causes of breathlessness,” they added.

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