St. Paul’s Hospital pilot project aims to help patients with COPD while reducing costs

Maggie Joyce and Robert Barnes are among the growing number of Canadians living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

“It’s kind of like a fish out of water when you can’t breathe, when you struggle for breath,” Joyce said of the disease, which damages the lungs, causing holes to form while clogging up airways with mucus.

“It’s a job just to breathe,” Barnes added. “After an eight-hour day you are tired like you worked all day long.”

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COPD patients are the highest users of hospital resources because infections can shut down their lungs altogether. Recovery can take weeks.

“Once they are at home they are at high risk of another lung attack so some patients come to the emergency room, not once, but up to 10 to 15 times a year,” Dr. Don Sin of the St. Paul’s Hospital Lung Program said.

Four years ago, St. Paul’s started a pilot project to follow COPD patients after their release from hospital, meeting up with them in the community and teaching them how to better manage the disease.

“Once we implemented this program we can reduce rates of hospitalizations by half,” Sin said.

They believe that if the program were available to all COPD patients in B.C., within a period of five years there would be 9,600 fewer emergency room visits, 6,200 fewer hospitalizations and more than $100 million saved.

“I haven’t been back to the hospital because I am gaining knowledge about my health,” Joyce said.

Similar pilot projects have since been adopted across Canada with similar results and similar challenges.

“Our funding here is still tenuous,” outreach nurse Beth Hutchins said. “We’re not too sure what our future looks like and we’re hoping that we can get some permanent funding.”

With rates of COPD on the rise, time is of the essence.

“In 10 years our hospitals will be full of COPD patients and patients with other conditions will not be able to get in,” Sin said.

– With files from Linda Aylesworth and Justin McElroy

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