Patients waiting over a year for vital lung tests

A lack of resources and widespread staff vacancies are leading to patients in Ireland waiting a year or more for tests needed to diagnose a range of lung conditions, a new survey has found.

Ahead of World Lung Day this Sunday, September 25, a survey of 19 pulmonary function laboratories found significant delays in access to vital tests needed to detect diseases including COPD, sleep apnoea and asthma.

The survey, carried out by the Irish Lung Health Alliance, found that two-thirds of laboratories who responded have at least one vacancy for respiratory physiologists, with the majority of these having multiple vacancies.

Nine laboratories have a waiting list of 18 months or longer for a pulmonary function test, including four with a waiting time exceeding three years. Studies required to diagnose sleep apnoea and narcolepsy have a waiting list of over two years in six laboratories, while seven laboratories are now waiting at least one year for a breathing challenge test to diagnose asthma.

Of the 19 laboratories that responded, 16 said that their workload has increased compared to before the pandemic. Five laboratories noted that their workload has increased by 25 per cent, five by 50 per cent, and two facilities said their workload has doubled.

Dr Marcus Butler, consultant respiratory physician and member of the Irish Lung Health Alliance, said the pandemic has exposed the fact that testing services were under-resourced.

“PFTs are crucial in making an accurate diagnosis of conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and to determine the severity of practically every other lung disease. This is a test that should be available as quickly as possible based on often urgent clinical need – for urgent cases, ideally on the same day. At the moment, we are being left to make an educated best guess, which is like seeing a diabetes patient, without knowing their blood sugar levels. We really are working blindfolded.”

Irish Lung Health Alliance, a coalition of charities working to promote healthy lungs, is urging the public to adopt its ‘Top Five Steps to Love Your Lungs’ by availing of ‘flu, pneumonia and Covid-19 vaccines, by quitting smoking, by limiting exposure to air pollution, by eating a balanced diet, and by being physically active. For more information visit www.lunghealth.ie.

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