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Met Office weather alerts cut COPD admissions by a fifth

Early warning system allows vulnerable patients to plan ahead to avoid a cold snap

Mark Gould

Monday, 11 August 2008

A joint initiative by the NHS and the Met Office warning people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) about weather which could have an effect on them has cut related hospital admissions  by a fifth.

The Met Office alerts tell people when cold weather is due, and so they can plan ahead to avoid being outside. So far more than 8,000 patients from 189 GP practices across the UK are signed up to the scheme. Each practice involved is e-mailed a weekly forecast between November and April.

New figures comparing admission rates in 2006 before the scheme was running, to last year, show there was a 24% fall in hospital admissions for COPD patients from the practices in the scheme, but there was just a 3% drop seen in practices in the same areas which are not taking part, giving a 21% net benefit.

The Met Office has surveyed more than 3,000 of the patients taking part in the scheme. Over a third were prompted to contact their GP practice to get a repeat prescription for their medication, while 11% consulted their doctor about worsening symptoms.

Patients commented that the service "made them feel that someone cared". One patient said: "I found this system to be very useful in planning and ordering of medication, and adjusting lifestyle to take account of the weather conditions."

The Met Office uses health information, such as what respiratory viruses are circulating, as well as weather forecasts to decide when warnings need to be given. If an alert is needed, patients receive an automated phone call spelling out what they can do to safeguard their health and asking if they feel they need to see their GP. The alerts were used four times last year.

Wayne Elliott, the head of the Met Office forecasting team, said: "If there is a cold snap coming, patients can get their shopping in beforehand, or contact their doctors and get their prescription early so they are not exposed to the low temperatures."

COPD affects over 900,000 people in the UK, causing acute breathlessness meaning everyday life can be very difficult. Cold air can worsen symptoms by making airways narrower, making it even harder to breathe. Chest infections are also more common in winter. Deaths due to respiratory disease, like COPD, increase 12 days after a fall in temperature, which causes an increase in colds and breathing problems.

Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation (BLF) said the forecast was "of great benefit". "Being aware of detrimental weather conditions enables people to plan ahead and avoid situations that could aggravate their condition."

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