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To test or not to test

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease in which breathing becomes more difficult. In Canada, COPD is a leading cause of hospitalization and death; about 4% of Canadians older than age 35 have been diagnosed with it.

Tests that measure breathing and how well the lungs work are recommended for anyone suspected of having COPD. Only 30% to 50% of people diagnosed with COPD, however, undergo this testing. Dr. Andrea Gershon, a scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute and respirologist at Sunnybrook, studied differences in outcomes in people with COPD who had lung function testing and those who did not. Looking at the health data of nearly 69,000 people in Ontario who were diagnosed with COPD, Gershon and colleagues found that 41% received breathing tests. The researchers discovered that people who had lung function testing had a 9% decreased risk of death and hospitalization due to COPD than those who did not have it. People with COPD who had the tests were also more likely to be prescribed appropriate medications, which may be why testing led to better outcomes, noted the researchers. The findings validate clinical guidelines that recommend breathing tests to diagnose COPD.