Helping respiratory disease victims breathe easier

December 10, 2007

Former smokers and miners dealing with the health damage from exposure to fine air particles are among Australians with chronic lung diseases who could benefit from a major study by the University of Queensland to identify the most effective way to manage their conditions.

The three-year $500,000 study funded by the MBF Foundation will be the first in the world to compare the effectiveness of a seven-week rehabilitation program to a self management approach and regular GP visits for people with emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis - lung conditions comprising the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) category - affect 10% of Australians aged over 45 at an annual cost of $800 million, with low income earners heavily represented. Despite the ease of diagnosis with no sophisticated medical testing involved, many people unknowingly have the disease.

These debilitating conditions are mostly caused by smoking or years of exposure to irritants and pollution. They are the fourth highest cause of death in Australia and represent the third largest burden of disease. Dr Christine Bennett, MBF Chief Medical Officer and chair of the MBF Foundation steering committee, said chronic respiratory conditions are a major health concern in Australia.

"Many older Australians are paying a heavy health price for exposure to fine air particles due to past poor work safety practices and for the effects of smoking during an era when there were no restrictions on the marketing of cigarettes in spite of their great health risk," Dr Bennett said.

"The University of Queensland project underlines how these chronic lung diseases rob sufferers of their quality of life. This study will help to identify an effective way to help people manage their conditions so that they can live as normally as possible in the circumstances.

"We hope that the need for such a program to manage smoking related lung diseases will also act as a deterrent to young people from taking up smoking with the almost certain risk of future health problems."

Principal researcher, Professor Bill Vicenzino, head of the University of Queensland's Physiotherapy Department, said there has been an increasing emphasis on community-based services in the health system. However, these were in short supply for emphysema and chronic bronchitis patients and an estimated 95% are missing out on help to manage their conditions.

"These diseases see patients gasping for every breath with their movement severely restricted to the point where they can sometimes barely get out of bed, let alone walk or drive to the shops," Prof Vicenzino said. "If they get a bad infection they go to hospital, otherwise there are limited services, except visiting their GP, to help them on a daily basis.

"We desperately need to step up the management of chronic respiratory conditions by helping patients to better understand their illness, undertake breathing exercises and improve their fitness. Because they are so sick, small things can make a big difference to their ability to cope with life."

People from the Brisbane and Ipswich areas are currently being recruited for the study. A third of the participants will undergo a self-management program named the Stanford Process developed to treat chronic diseases in general.

Another third will be involved in the trial of a seven-week rehabilitation program designed specially to manage emphysema and chronic bronchitis via education and exercise. Remaining participants will continue as now seeing their GPs as needed.

Professor Vicenzino expects the rehabilitation program to deliver better short-term gains by encouraging patients to exercise but the study will determine which approach is likely to be more effective in the long term.

"This is the first time that self-management and rehabilitation programs have been compared head-to-head," Prof Vicenzino said. "The findings will help GPs determine the best way to improve patient outcomes and inform policy-makers on making the right combination of services available to the community. Our ultimate goal is to reduce hospitalisations and improve longevity and quality of life for people with chronic respiratory conditions."
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People wanting to participate in the study or have a free lung test can register their interest by calling Megan on 07 3365 4587.

About The MBF Foundation

The MBF Foundation is a charitable institution set up by MBF to support and manage important health initiatives for the community using a portion of MBF Group's investment income each year. Projects undertaken encompass three key areas - wellness and obesity, supporting healthy ageing and keeping healthcare affordable.

Research Australia

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