Asthma deaths report warns complacency is costing lives


Sarah Sparshott, whose daughter died of asthma : "I wish they had listened"

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People suffering from asthma are dying unnecessarily because of complacency among both medical staff and patients, according to the first national study of asthma deaths in the UK.

Researchers found that in nearly half of the cases they looked at, asthma sufferers did not receive any medical help during their final asthma attack.

The National Review of Asthma Deaths says sufferers and medics must be better at recognising the danger signs.

The UK has 5.5 million asthmatics.


Although deaths linked to the condition have been falling, there were 1,242 in 2012 - meaning the UK has some of the highest asthma death rates in Europe.

Holly Sparshott, from Gosport, died of asthma at the age of 12. Her mother, Sarah, is campaigning to raise awareness about how dangerous the disease can be.

The national study involved a detailed examination of the circumstances around 195 such deaths.

Among the review's key findings were:

Fatal disease

Sarah Sparshott, from Gosport, lost her 12-year-old daughter, Holly, to an asthma attack in October 2013.

Holly died at a hospice after falling into a coma when she had an attack that stopped her breathing for 15 minutes.

Holly was diagnosed with asthma at the age of two. Her asthma got progressively worse as she approached puberty.

A month before Holly collapsed, Sarah took her to the doctor and asked for her to see an asthma consultant . "She was refused because she wasn't bad enough," Sarah recalls.

"It makes me frustrated. I couldn't have done any more than I could as a parent.

"My campaign now is to make people aware that you can die from asthma. It is serious."

  • The standard of care received was less than satisfactory in a quarter of cases where people died and there was "room for improvement" in the care received by 83% of those who died.
  • Triggers for asthma attacks had not been documented in more than half of the cases and 57% were not recorded as being under specialist supervision in the year before death.
  • Deficiencies were found in both routine care and in the treatment of attacks.
  • There was widespread under-use of preventer inhalers and excessive over-reliance on reliever inhalers.
  • 10% of those who died did so within one month of discharge from hospital following treatment for asthma; at least 21% had attended an emergency department at least once in the previous year.
  • Over half of those who died were being treated for mild or moderate asthma at the time; experts concluded that this was mostly because neither doctors nor patients themselves recognised how serious their asthma really was.
  • Of those who died, 19% were smokers and others, including many children, were exposed to second-hand smoke in the home.
  • Some patients had not collected their prescriptions for preventative treatment or did not attend regular asthma check-ups.

Asthma in the UK

  • 5.5 million people are treated for the condition
  • On average, three people per day or one person every eight hours dies from asthma
  • An estimated 75% of hospital admissions for asthma are avoidable and 90% of deaths are preventable
  • One in 11 children and one in 12 adults has asthma
  • It is more common in women than men
  • The NHS spends around £1 billion a year treating and caring for people with asthma

Researchers found that clinicians and patients alike had become complacent about the illness.

Since asthma symptoms can come and go, some patients may forget or feel they don't need to keep taking their medication, for example.

The report calls for better monitoring and improved education for doctors, nurses, patients and carers.

Dr Kevin Stewart of the Royal College of Physicians, which managed the review, said: "It's time to end our complacency about asthma, which can, and does, kill. There are important messages in this report for clinicians, for patients and their families and for policy-makers.

"We haven't paid enough attention to the importance of good routine asthma care by clinicians with the right training and experience and the part that patients themselves play in this.

Asthma inhaler There were 1,242 deaths linked to asthma in 2012

"Too often we have also been slow to detect signs of poor asthma control and slow to act when these have been present, with tragic consequences for some families."

'Damning indictment'

Prof Chris Griffiths of Queen Mary University of London was also involved in the report.

He said it revealed that care had deteriorated since an analysis in 2005.

Prof Griffiths said: "These worrying statistics can and must be turned around in the next decade.

Start Quote

It's heart-breaking that the review has found 46% of deaths could have been avoided with better routine care”

End Quote Kay Boycott Asthma UK

"Those of us who work in general practice must implement the recommendation to have a named clinician responsible for asthma in each practice.

"Despite facing huge challenges as we work to meet current NHS organisational change, we need to prioritise asthma care in order to reduce deaths in the UK."

Kay Boycott, chief executive of the Asthma UK says the charity "wholeheartedly endorses" the report.

She said: "This confidential enquiry has identified prescribing errors of a frankly horrifying scale and is a damning indictment of current routine practice."

In many of the cases the experts examined, warning signs were found to have been ignored.

'Call to action'

Ms Boycott added: "Past attacks are a clear risk factor for future attacks, but more than two-thirds of the people hospitalised in the month before they died did not get properly checked up afterwards.

"It's heart-breaking that the review has found 46% of deaths could have been avoided with better routine care."

Prof Mike Morgan, NHS England's national clinical director for respiratory services, said: "These statistics are a call to action for commissioners, health professionals and patients.

"Every patient should have a care plan which should be regularly reviewed and patients should be supported to manage their asthma, including effective inhaler technique and knowledge of their condition."

The Irish, Scottish and Welsh Governments said they would look closely at the key findings of the report.

A spokesman for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland (DHSSPS) said: "As part of its continuing commitment to improve services, the department will consider the findings and recommendations of the National Review of Asthma Deaths and what lessons can be learned from the report."

Asthma death rate in selected* European countries, 2010

Country Deaths per 100,000 population

Source: OECD, *OECD member countries with 2010 data available





United Kingdom














Slovak Republic












Czech Republic









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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I have been diagnosed with asthma for the last 25 years. For all those years it was nothing but a slight inconvenience, get wheezy use the inhaler 5mins later back to normal. Complacent oh yes! That was untill an evening last month when things went differently. After a couple of hours struggling 999 was called and off to A&E and week in hospital. Asthma gets you like that. The report is spot on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Couldn't agree more with the posts on here calling for free prescriptions for asthma sufferers. As an asthmatic I find it disgraceful that a life-threatening illness, the same as diabetes, is not treated equitably in the way the medication is made available.

    I am fortunate that my asthma is mild and I can lead an active life. Others struggle to breathe. Sort the prescription farce out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Many other life long and life limiting conditions such as diabetes have free prescriptions. Why not asthma? My doctor used to give me 2 or 3 inhalers under one script, meaning I paid less per inhaler. The new "rules" mean they can only give me one at a time. When you use ventolin and say a Q-Var inhaler, that gets costly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I've been an asthmatic since childhood. It's vitally important to take the preventer I've finally realised after having spells of missing it, but this raises the issue of cost. I have a pre-paid prescription now - but surely as it's life-threatening inhalers should be free? I'm sure the cost is why people don't take them. It was a factor for me not taking mine when I was low-paid in the '80s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It would help if the NHS treated asthma preventative drug in the same way as drugs for such illnesses as epilepsy and diabetes. Those drugs are free from prescription charge, but the asthma preventative drugs are not. This means that people have to pay every month for a drug that, if taken properly and regularly, can and will save their life.


Comments 5 of 6


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