COPD Awareness Month: We need more resources to fight it

 COPD Awareness Month: We need more resources to fight it
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There’s a good chance that you know someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you don’t, chances are you know someone who does because there are 16 million Americans diagnosed with COPD and millions of others who don’t realize they have it. Presently, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. 

COPD is a disease primarily affecting the lungs that causes shortness of breath and coughing. In the early stages, the symptoms can be subtle and bothersome only during physical activity. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath occurs during rest and portable oxygen is needed. COPD affects women more than men and is often associated with smoking.

According to the COPD National Action Plan, about 80 percent of COPD deaths are linked to smoking, but smoking is not the only culprit. COPD can be caused by air pollution, chemical fumes, and even genetics. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic condition that can lead to COPD, even in nonsmokers.


Quality of life and costs associated with COPD pose a significant burden to society. A 2018 study showed that patients with COPD frequently consider their quality of life negatively impacted by their portable oxygen delivery devices.

Further evaluation revealed that patients on portable oxygen devices perceive a lack of independence and often feel isolated. Everyday activities like yard work, housekeeping, and even walking to the mailbox pose significant challenges for those tethered to heavy, unwieldy oxygen devices.

According to the Center for Disease Control, financial costs associated with COPD are projected to be $49 billion by 2020, up from $32.1 billion in 2010, with Medicare and Medicaid footing most of the bill.  There were 16.4 million days of work missed in 2010 because of COPD and this will only increase in 2020. Every state in the U.S. is affected by COPD, with West Virginia’s prevalence leading the way at 12 percent.

There are many things being done to combat COPD. Federal agencies and advocacy groups have increased attention to the disease. At the request of Congress, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute developed the COPD National Action Plan.

This plan is designed to improve awareness, diagnosis, treatment, and research efforts pertaining to this largely preventable disease. Organizations like the COPD FoundationAmerican Lung AssociationAmerican College of Chest PhysiciansAmerican Association for Respiratory CareU.S COPD Coalition, and many others work tirelessly to improve the lives of the millions of people that struggle with COPD and to one day find a cure. These efforts, however, fall short.


Earlier this month, former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel shared his personal experiences with COPD with an audience of respiratory therapists, physicians, and other healthcare providers. He highlighted the alarming fact that COPD is ranked 165th in research funding despite being the fourth-leading killer in the United States.

Alarmingly, pulmonary rehabilitation, used to provide exercise, education, and support for patients with COPD, is reimbursed at half the rate of cardiac rehabilitation. 

Koppel’s presentation included a video that graphically underscores the reality of the disease. This video hit home with the audience, as we see patients like those in the video each day. Many people are unable to stop smoking on their own, cannot afford to purchase their medications or use them properly, and struggle using their awkward home oxygen devices. 

Although some individuals with COPD feel shame that they may have brought on this condition themselves through smoking, many have never smoked a single cigarette. 

Since November is National COPD Awareness Month, it is a good time to consider some major COPD realities. COPD can be diagnosed during regular office visits by a simple breathing test called spirometry. Although there is no cure, the early recognition and treatment of COPD can lead to an improved quality of life.

It doesn’t make sense that research for the fourth-leading cause of death and fourth leading cause of disability in the U.S., ranks so low in funding. Congress needs to do the right thing and change this discrepancy given that COPD can be largely prevented, diagnosed earlier and treated more effectively. 

J. Brady Scott is a respiratory therapist and associate professor in the Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences, Division of Respiratory Care, College of Health Sciences at Rush University. Ellen A. Becker is a respiratory therapist and professor in the Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences, Division of Respiratory Care, College of Health Sciences at Rush University. Shawna L. Strickland is a respiratory therapist and associate executive director of the American Association for Respiratory Care. She is also adjunct faculty in the Department of Health Sciences, College of Health Sciences at Rush University.