Effectiveness of a hand-held fan for breathlessness: a randomised phase II trial

BMC Palliat Care. 2010 Oct 19;9:22. doi: 10.1186/1472-684X-9-22.


Background: Breathlessness is common and distressing in advanced disease. This phase II study aimed to determine the use and acceptance of a hand-held fan (HHF) to relieve breathlessness, to test the effectiveness of the HHF and to evaluate the recruitment into the study.

Methods: RCT embedded within a longitudinal study testing a HHF over time compared to a wristband. Patients were included in the longitudinal study when suffering from breathlessness due to advanced cancer or COPD III/IV and could opt in the RCT. Primary outcome was use of the HHF and the wristband after two months. Secondary outcomes were recruitment into the trial and change of breathlessness severity after two months, measured on the modified Borg scale. Baseline data were collected in a personal interview and follow-up data by monthly postal questionnaires.

Results: 109 patients were recruited in the longitudinal study of which 70 patients (64%) participated in the RCT. Non-participants had statistically significant less breathlessness (Borg mean 2.6 (SD 1.48) versus 3.7 (SD 1.83); p = 0.003) and a better functional status (Karnofsky status mean 61.9 (SD 11.2) versus 66.7 (SD 11.0); p = 0.03). Attrition due to drop out or death was high in both groups. After two months, about half of the patients used the HHF but only 20% the wristband without a statistical difference (Fisher's exact test p = 0.2). 9/16 patients judged the HHF as helpful after two months and 4/5 patients the wristband. There was no difference in mean breathlessness change scores between the HHF (Borg change score: mean 0.6 (SD 2.10)) and the wristband (mean 0.8 (SD 2.67)) after two months (p = 0.90).

Conclusions: Symptom burden and low functional status did not restrain patients from participation in the study. Finding a control for a visible intervention is challenging and needs careful consideration to what is acceptable to patients. The preliminary evidence of effectiveness of the HHF could not be proved. Patients often stopped using the HHF but a small group seemed to benefit which was not necessarily related to a relief in breathlessness. Therefore, more work is necessary on selecting and identifying those who might benefit from the HHF.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01123902.

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT01123902