COMMENTARY

2022 GOLD Report: Tips for Diagnosing and Evaluating COPD

Linda Girgis, MD

June 13, 2022

For many years, COPD has remained one of the top four leading causes of death in the United States according to CDC data. Around the world, it is responsible for about 3 million deaths annually. It is estimated that 16 million Americans are now diagnosed with COPD. However, it is commonly agreed by experts that it is widely underdiagnosed and there may be millions more suffering from this disease.

The direct costs of COPD are around $49 billion a year in direct costs, with billions more in indirect costs. Around the globe, COPD is one of the top three causes of death, with 90% of deaths happening in low- and middle-income countries. The burden of COPD is expected to grow over time because of the aging population and continued exposure to COPD risk factors.

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease report (or GOLD) is revised every year, translated into many languages, and used by health care workers globally. It was started in 1998, and its aim was to produce guidelines based on the best scientific evidence available that was nonbiased to be used for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of patients with COPD. The first report was issued in 2001. The method of producing the GOLD report was to do a search of PubMed for evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies. Those not captured by this method could be submitted for review. The science committee then meets twice a year and reviews each publication, eventually agreeing on a set of guidelines/updates.

2022 GOLD Report

For the 2022 GOLD report, 160 new references were added. Overall, the GOLD report is five chapters (more than 150 pages) giving in-depth guidance for the diagnosis, prevention, management, and treatment of patients with stable COPD, COPD exacerbations, and hospitalized patients.

The report suggests that COPD is being underdiagnosed. It’s important for primary care doctors to understand the new guidelines, because they are the clinicians who are most likely to be diagnosing and treating patients with COPD.

Family physicians and internists will be seeing more and more cases as the population ages, and we need to do a better job of recognizing patients who have COPD. If possible, we should try to have spirometry available in our practices. Like any other disease, we know prevention works best so primary care physicians also need to be looking for risk factors, such as smoking history, and help patients try to reduce them if possible. Below is more explanation of the latest guidelines.

For most of us, when we learned about COPD as a disease, the terms “chronic bronchitis” and “emphysema” were emphasized. These words are no longer used as synonymous for COPD.

The disease is now described as involving chronic limitation in airflow that results from a combination of small airway disease and parenchymal destruction (emphysema). The rates of each vary from person to person and progress at different rates. Key factors that contribute to COPD disease burden include chronic inflammation, narrowing of small airways, loss of alveolar attachments, loss of elastic recoil, and mucociliary dysfunction, according to the 2022 GOLD report.

Respiratory symptoms may precede the onset of airflow limitation. COPD should be considered in any patient with dyspnea, chronic cough or sputum production, a history of recurrent lower respiratory tract infections, and risk factors for the disease.

The biggest risk factor for COPD is smoking. Other risk factors include occupational exposure, e-cigarette use, pollution, genetic factors, and comorbid conditions. Symptoms of the disease can include chest tightness, wheezing, and fatigue.

To make a diagnosis of COPD, spirometry is required, the latest GOLD report says. A postbronchodilator FEV1/FVC less than 0.70 confirms persistent airflow limitation and hence COPD. This value is used in clinical trials and forms the basis of what most treatment guidelines are derived from. It would be beneficial for any physician treating COPD patients to have easy access to spirometry. It provides the most reproducible and objective measurement of airflow limitation. Also, it was found that assessing the degree of reversibility of airflow limitation to decide therapeutic decisions is no longer recommended and thus, asking the patient to stop inhaled medications beforehand is unnecessary. To access the impact COPD has on a patient’s life beyond dyspnea, the guidelines recommend doing a disease-specific health questionnaire, such as the COPD Assessment Test (CAT).

Along with patient symptoms and history of exacerbations, spirometry is crucial for the diagnosis, prognosis, and therapeutic decisions in COPD patients, according to the GOLD guidance. The best predictor of frequent exacerbations, however, is a history of previous exacerbations. In cases where there is a discrepancy between airflow limitation and symptoms, additional testing should be considered. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) screening should be considered in younger patients (under 45 years) with perilobular emphysema, and those in areas of high AATD prevalence. Chest x-rays are not recommended in diagnosing COPD but can be helpful if other comorbidities are present. CT scan is not routinely recommended but should be used only for the detection of bronchiectasis, if the patient meets the criteria for lung cancer screening, if surgery is necessary, or if other diseases may need to be evaluated.

Pulse oximetry can be helpful in accessing degree of severity, respiratory failure, and right heart failure. Walking tests can be helpful for evaluating disability and mortality risk. Other tests that have been used but are not routinely recommended include plethysmography and diffusing capacity of the lungs for carbon monoxide.

Composite scores can identify patients who are at increased risk of mortality. One such score is the BODE (Body mass, Obstruction, Dyspnea, and Exercise) method. Biomarkers are being investigated, but data are still not available to recommend their routine use.

Girgis practices family medicine in South River, N.J., and is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J. You can contact her at fpnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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