Lack of basic care for asthma patients has been blamed for “unacceptable” levels of avoidable deaths as new research reveals the condition costs the NHS in Scotland more than £97.5 million a year.
Every year, 94 Scots die because of asthma attacks while more than 20 people are admitted to hospital each day for treatment, according to the largest study of its kind ever carried out in the UK.
Campaigners called for urgent action to improve basic care for the condition, which occurs when the airways to the lungs are inflamed, making it hard to breathe.
The UK has one of the highest burdens of asthma in the world, with more than 1,160 annual deaths and an annual treatment bill of more than £1.1 billion.
Scottish patients sought frequent help from their GP, racking up around 500,000 consultations a year for asthma-related complications.
Edinburgh University researchers found that the majority of NHS cash was spent on GP prescriptions, yet preventative devices such as inhalers were not reducing high levels of deaths and hospital admissions.
Professor Aziz Sheikh, director of the university’s Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, said: “Even with conservative assumptions, we find almost 100,000 people are admitted to hospital and there are at least 1,000 deaths from asthma each year in the UK.
“This is unacceptable for a condition that, for most people, can be managed effectively with the right support from their GP. Greater focus on primary care is needed if we are to cut rates of severe asthma attacks, hospitalisations and deaths.”
Of the £1.1bn cost of treating asthma in the UK, more than £666m is spent on prescription costs each year, according to the study published today in the BMC Medicine journal.
Other costs include £160m on GP consultations, £143m on disability claims and £137m on hospital care.
Researchers say the true total is likely to be substantially higher as they did not take into account people for whom asthma was not their main illness. More than 368,000 people currently receive treatment for asthma in Scotland, including 72,000 children.
Asthma campaigners are concerned that many people are not using their inhalers properly or having regular reviews with their nurse or doctor, placing them at risk of more severe attacks.
Smart inhalers digitally record the time and dosage each time a patient uses them so doctors and patients can track their usage. The small devices, which attach to a normal inhaler, can also issue reminders to people to take their medication if they forget.
Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, said: “Despite the fact we’re spending over a billion pounds a year on asthma, many people are still not receiving care that meets even the most basic clinical standards. It’s clear this has to change.”
Patient representatives branded the figures “worrying” and called for further research into the triggers of asthma.
Margaret Watt, chair of the Scotland Patients Association, said: “Asthma seems to be on the increase, which is very worrying. It can really impact on quality of life and it is concerning for children particularly growing up with asthma.”
Last night, health secretary Shona Robison defended the Scottish Government’s record on asthma care and research, insisting that Scotland’s free prescription policy made life better for sufferers.
She said: “Prescription charges are nothing less than a tax on ill health. The Scottish Government is proud to have abolished them and we are committed to keeping prescriptions free for all, meaning that no one living in Scotland has to pay for inhalers.”