Background: We examined the circumstances surrounding death from asthma in Mersey Region and the feasibility of conducting a regional confidential enquiry, as suggested by the British Thoracic Society in response to the proposal in the Green Paper the health of the nation that asthma should be a key area for action.
Method: Sixty-three Mersey residents, aged 16-65 years, died in Mersey Region in 1989 and 1990 with ICD code 493. Diagnostic criteria for asthma were applied to each case. Anonymized case-note summaries were assessed by a chest physician (M.P.) for (1) severity of symptoms/disease, (2) risk of a respiratory death and (3)avoidable factors in the circumstances surrounding death.
Results: Some written information was available on every patients. In 43/63 (68 percent) cases asthma was the true cause of death; 41/43 had had asthma diagnosed in life. Mean age (47 years) and median age of onset of asthma (10 years) were similar to those found in previous studies, but the proportion of men (58 percent) was higher. Only 6 (14 percent) deaths occurred after more than a few hours in hospital; for the rest, hospital contact was either too late (19 percent) or did not occur (67 percent). Of 22/43 (51 percent) patients considered at high risk of a respiratory death, 15 had poorly controlled symptoms for at least a year before their deaths. Avoidable factors were present in 29/43 (67 percent) cases; most commonly lack of assessment, inadequate doses of steroids and over-reliance on bronchodilators.
Conclusion: These findings resemble those of previous studies, showing that little has changed. Asthma deaths occur mostly outside hospital; thus to replace deaths, resources should be directed at the community to improve the recognition of asthma by patients, their families and the primary care team. A regional confidential enquiry is feasible and could be an effective mechanism for proving management.