Old-fashioned breathing tests could be putting patients at risk

COVID-19 is making scientists rethink various testing and diagnostic procedures. For example, breathing currently is being assessed by counting breaths over a 30-second period. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh say that this method is unreliable and may even be putting patients at risk, because it could be producing inaccurate results.

COVID-19 is motivating scientists to reevaluate old testing methods. Image credit: IAEA Imagebank via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

A team of researchers analysed recordings of breathing in 25 hospital patients. Each of those recordings was made for between 30 minutes and an hour in patients with illnesses that included respiratory, cardiac, neurological and urinary conditions. Scientists wanted to see whether there are any variations in  the respiratory rate when measuring it over a short time period, so they sampled the recordings at various random times. They found that there was a large variation in the respiration rate for each patient. In fact, more than half of measurements were vastly different. Furthermore, in 40 % of cases these variations made a difference in the warning score chart, meaning that inaccuracies might have been putting patients in danger.

The problem is that the current method doesn’t assess people’s irregular breathing patterns. All patients that come into the hospital are assessed in this way – their breathing pattern is observed and sampled for 30 seconds. This information is then used as a part of what is known as a warning score chart. In other words, this breathing test helps doctors determine how ill the patient is. Inaccuracies in the  warning score chart could lead to some patients getting inadequate attention and care in the hospital, which, as you might imagine, is scarily dangerous.

Dr Gordon Drummond, one of the authors of the study, said: “The lack of accuracy in measurement of respiration rate could have an impact on a patient’s treatment. We think accuracy would be improved by increasing the time of measurement to two minutes and using specialist equipment to measure respiratory rate.”

This is particularly important in the time of the global pandemic. COVID-19 is a respiratory infection. Many people who come to the hospital with COVID-19 could be assessed using inaccurate methods, which is absolutely less than ideal. Their condition may be evaluated incorrectly, leading to inappropriate treatment, which can lead to complications. This is why scientists are encouraging doctors to pick up new methods to evaluate patients’ breathing patterns.

Many of today’s diagnostic methods are actually old-fashioned. They are based on old research, which can lead to many different problems. It is important to improve them based on new studies and new findings.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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