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COPD Patients Need Better Communication with Their Doctors. Here’s How to Help

By Nick Paul Taylor

Chronic lower respiratory diseases are the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., making them more deadly than conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.1 The good news is that there are several medications available to treat this group of illnesses, which include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and improve these individuals’ quality of life. But many patients aren’t having the conversations necessary to make that happen.

COPD patients’ symptoms include cough and shortness of breath.2 However, COPD manifests differently from patient to patient and sometimes develops very slowly. The lack of a clear signal that something is wrong means people need prompting to talk to their doctor about their breathing problems.

“Many people don’t even know they have COPD. They experience symptoms that they consider part of normal life progression and essentially learn to live with them,” says Norbert Feigler, MD, Senior Medical Director, Respiratory at AstraZeneca. “Estimates [suggest] as many as half of American COPD patients [are] not yet diagnosed.”

As COPD progresses, daily activities become more difficult, but the process is gradual. An individual may start to walk more slowly or avoid going up steps, incrementally—and often imperceptibly—adapting their lives so that they don’t get out of breath. When their physician asks how they’re doing, they may say they are fine, minimizing their experiences because they have adapted to an undiagnosed illness

That scenario creates an ideal opportunity for direct-to-consumer messaging, particularly at the point of care. If campaigns can help patients recognize that their symptoms and subtle lifestyle changes may be signs of a lung disease, they can encourage conversations between patients and their doctors that may lead to more timely treatment. And, since COPD-related lung damage is permanent, cutting the time to diagnosis can only improve outcomes.

“It can be particularly mentally and emotionally tolling when a patient is first diagnosed, knowing the damage to their lungs is irreversible,” Dr. Feigler says. “This is why it’s important for patients to recognize the signs and symptoms of COPD, driving earlier diagnosis, and ultimately allowing physicians to employ a more proactive approach to disease management.”

Point-of-care campaigns can play a vital role in minimizing that damage, as well as its psychological toll, by encouraging patients to talk to their physician when they first notice possible signs of COPD. Such campaigns can help those who are already diagnosed, too. A Phreesia survey of 1,994 COPD patients found that fewer than half (44%) of diagnosed COPD patients had had detailed discussions with their doctor about their breathing symptoms. In a potentially related finding, 34% of respondents said they lacked a full understanding of their condition.

Those results suggest that COPD patients may be missing out on treatments and lifestyle changes that could improve their quality of life and health outcomes. Albert Rizzo, MD, FACP, Chief Medical Officer at the American Lung Association, explains how educational campaigns can benefit COPD patients.

“One of the best things to help a COPD patient is to educate them about the importance of staying active” Dr. Rizzo says. “You don’t have to do 30 minutes on a treadmill every day, but walking to the mailbox, doing the steps once or twice a day, just trying to maintain a level of activity, can go a long way in helping them feel like they have better control in their day-to-day activities.”

An estimated 12.2 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, but even more are living with the disease without a diagnosis. Those numbers indicate that DTC campaigns that change the awareness and behaviors of even a fraction of those suffering with COPD can have a huge impact and address a great unmet need by encouraging patients and providers to work together to identify symptoms, diagnose COPD earlier and ultimately shift the standard of care to a proactive approach to disease management.


  1. “Leading Causes of Death,” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jan. 18, 2023.
  2. Lee, Y.-C., Chang, K.-Y. & Sethi, S. Association of Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease With County Health Disparities in New York State. JAMA Netw Open.2021;4(11):e2134268. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.34268
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