Accuracy of diagnostic registers and management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: the Devon primary care audit

Respir Res. 2008 Aug 18;9(1):62. doi: 10.1186/1465-9921-9-62.


Background: Guidelines on COPD diagnosis and management encourage primary care physicians to detect the disease at an early stage and to treat patients according to their condition and needs. Problems in guideline implementation include difficulties in diagnosis, using spirometry and the disputed role of reversibility testing. These lead to inaccurate diagnostic registers and inadequacy of administered treatments. This study represents an audit of COPD diagnosis and management in primary care practices in Devon.

Methods: Six hundred and thirty two patients on COPD registers in primary care practices were seen by a visiting Respiratory Specialist Nurse. Diagnoses were made according to the NICE guidelines. Reversibility testing was carried out either routinely or based on clinical indication in two sub-samples. Dyspnoea was assessed. Data were entered into a novel IT-based software which computed guideline-based treatment recommendations. Current and recommended treatments were compared.

Results: Five hundred and eighty patients had spirometry. Diagnoses of COPD were confirmed in 422 patients (73%). Thirty nine patients were identified as asthma only, 94 had normal spirometry, 23 were restrictive and 2 had a cardiac disorder. Reversibility testing changed diagnosis of 11% of patients with airflow obstruction, and severity grading in 18%. Three quarters of patients with COPD had been offered practical help with smoking cessation. Short and long-acting anticholinergics and long acting beta-2 agonists had been under-prescribed; in 15-18% of patients they were indicated but not received. Inhaled steroids had been over-prescribed (recommended in 17%; taken by 60%), whereas only 4% of patients with a chronic productive cough were receiving mucolytics. Pulmonary rehabilitation was not available in some areas and was under-used in other areas.

Conclusion: Diagnostic registers of COPD in primary care contain mistakes leading to inaccurate prevalence estimates and inappropriate treatment decisions. Use of pre-bronchodilator readings for diagnosis overestimates the prevalence and severity in a significant minority, thus post bronchodilator readings should be used. Management of stable COPD does often not correspond to guidelines. The IT system used in this study has the potential to improve diagnosis and management of COPD in primary care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use
  • Decision Making, Computer-Assisted
  • England
  • Family Practice / standards*
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Audit*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / drug therapy*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / epidemiology
  • Registries / standards*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Spirometry
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Bronchodilator Agents