A couple of months ago, one of my colleagues, Jon Stefanuca, wrote a post for Eye Opener entitled Four Tips For Getting the Medical Care You Need When You Are Having An Asthma Problem. In that article, he explained the importance of patients proactively knowing and explaining their asthma symptoms to healthcare providers. He focused on some of the key features of asthma and the unique symptoms that each individual may experience. If you have not already read that article, I highly recommend it as a great way to become a better advocate for yourself or someone in your life that suffers from asthma.
Over the last few months, I have been thinking about Jon’s advice in relation to some work I have been doing. It makes good sense and hopefully will help people receive better care when they are having exacerbations of their asthma. However, I was disheartened to read a recent article from Reuters about how frequently parents underestimate their children’s asthma symptoms.
Parents Underestimate Their Children’s Asthma Symptoms
I am always a little leery of studies that are drugmaker-funded, particularly when the study suggests that perhaps more medications are needed to combat a problem. However, taken at face value, this is a pretty frightening idea given how many children now suffer from asthma and how serious a condition it can be for those children and families. The article points to a disconnect between the parents’ description of their child’s asthma and whether the asthma was actually being adequately treated:
While more than seven out of every 10 parents interviewed described their child’s asthma as “mild” or “intermittent,” the disease was adequately treated in only six in 10 kids.
A doctor who was not involved in the study explained it this way:
“Parents are only aware of asthma when the child is more severely ill,” Dr. Gordon Bloomberg…
“Physicians cannot just ask the parent ‘how is your child doing?’ The physician will get a global answer that doesn’t reflect the child’s quality of life,” said Bloomberg, of Washington University in St. Louis.
Poor treatment may influence asthmatic children’s quality of life, as well as that of their families.
In the survey, more than four in 10 parents reported missing work because of their child’s asthma, and similar numbers of parents regularly lost sleep for the same reason.
Children are Better Reporters Than Their Parents of Symptoms
Interestingly, “[t]he study also found children tended to be better than their parents at determining how well their asthma was being treated.” So, clearly, doctors must take the time to discuss the asthma symptoms and treatments not only with parents but also in a sensitive and appropriate way with the children patients themselves in order to receive a better indication of the disease status. The doctors interviewed for the Reuter’s article had different opinions on what this means for asthma treatment:
According to a new report, this suggests parents need more education about asthma medications.
But one expert said more medication is not the be-all and end-all for children.
“The idea of total control…is not where we should be putting our energy,” Dr. Barbara Yawn from Olmstead Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota, told Reuters Health in an email.
Instead of just giving children with stubborn breathing problems more medication, she said better communication is needed to determine how children’s lives are affected, and what it will take to prevent their symptoms.
New Study Shows Receiving Treatment, Even with Placebo, Important for Asthma Patients – But Does not Improve Objective Health
In another recent study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at how asthma patients responded to a medication (bronchodilator), two different types of placebos (fake inhaler or fake acupuncture), or no intervention at all. An objective measure was taken of the patient’s ability to exhale after each intervention (or lack of intervention) and the patient’s own rating of improvement was noted. What was so interesting about this study were the different outcomes between the objective (spirometry) and subjective (patient’s self-reporting) measurements of improvement.
The bronchodilator provided markedly better objective treatment over the placebos or no treatment – a 20% improvement rather than 7% for the placebos or no treatment. However, the subjective measure of improvement found that patients were almost the same, 45-50% improvement, whether the patients received the actual bronchodilator (50%), the placebo inhaler (45%) or the sham acupuncture (46%). All of which were higher than the 21% improvement reported by those who did not receive intervention.
An article about the study in medicalnewstoday.com explains the outcome this way:
Now a study of asthma patients examining the impact of two different placebo treatments versus standard medical treatment with an albuterol bronchodilator has reached two important conclusions: while placebos had no effect on lung function (one of the key objective measures that physicians depend on in treating asthma patients) when it came to patient-reported outcomes, placebos were equally as effective as albuterol in helping to relieve patients’ discomfort and their self-described asthma symptoms.
The study’s senior author, Ted Kaptchuk, Director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School explained it this way in the article:
“It’s clear that for the patient, the ritual of treatment can be very powerful…This study suggests that in addition to active therapies for fixing diseases, the idea of receiving care is a critical component of what patients value in health care. In a climate of patient dissatisfaction, this may be an important lesson.”
However, I wonder if it cannot also be understood another way – which is that patients are likely to feel like their symptoms have been improved after a visit to a doctor, even if objectively their airway is still compromised.
How Should this Impact Asthma Treatment?
So what can be done with this new information? I think that Jon’s advice about patient’s knowing their own symptoms and expressing them clearly to their doctors is critical. I also agree completely with his advice that patients should ask for an objective measure of their respiratory improvement before leaving a health care facility. These two steps seem key to making sure that patients objective health is being improved – not just their subjective opinion of improvement. Finally, I think that it is critical that parents act as the best advocates possible for their children – which may include making sure that the children are heard on their own symptoms since parents are not the most reliable reporters.
What do you think? Are there other tips for asthma patients and their parents out there? How do respond to these new studies?