Comparison of patients with asthma managed in general practice and in a hospital clinic

Omar A Abdulwadud, Michael J Abramson and Larry Light
Med J Aust 1999; 171 (2): 72-75.
Published online: 19 July 1999

Comparison of patients with asthma managed in general practice and in a hospital clinic

Omar A Abdulwadud, Michael J Abramson,
Larry Light, Francis C K Thien and E Haydn Walters

MJA 1999; 171: 72-75
See also Heard et al & Gibson

Abstract - Introduction - Methods - Results - Discussion - Acknowledgements - References - Authors' details
- - More articles on Respiratory medicine

Abstract Objectives: To compare knowledge and attitudes about asthma, self-management skills and impact of asthma on quality of life between patients managed in general practice (GP) and in a hospital clinic.
Design: Cross-sectional survey with six months' follow-up.
Patients and setting: 105 adults with asthma: 61 from the Alfred Hospital Asthma and Allergy Clinic, Melbourne, and 44 from nearby general practices, in 1994-1995.
Main outcome measures: Patient sociodemographic and clinical characteristics; patient knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about asthma; self-management skills; and impact of asthma on quality of life.
Results: GP patients were more educated (P = 0.04) and more likely to smoke (P = 0.04) and to have mild asthma (P = 0.04) than hospital patients; they were less likely to use theophylline (P = 0.006) and to have exercise limitation (P = 0.03), and had fewer previous hospital admissions (P = 0.01). Impact of asthma on quality of life was greater in the hospital group than in the GP group. At baseline, the GP group were less likely to have written asthma action plans (P = 0.018), and were less able to manage rapid onset attacks than the hospital group (P = 0.02). More subjects in the hospital group than the GP group felt their asthma was severe (P = 0.02) and were optimistic about their asthma improving (P = 0.03). GP patients increased their knowledge about asthma significantly (P = 0.002) over six months.
Conclusions: Patients with asthma managed in general practice and in hospital differ in clinical parameters, quality of life and attitudes to asthma. Future educational initiatives should take such differences into account.

Introduction Asthma is the third most common reason for consultations with general practitioners (GPs) in Australia,1 but is both under-recognised and undertreated.2 The finding that GPs were the usual source of routine asthma treatment for 89% of the people who died of asthma3 demonstrates that GPs have the primary management role even in severe asthma.4

To guide both doctors and patients, in 1989 the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand developed the "six-point" Australian Asthma Management Plan (AMP).5 This was adopted by the National Asthma Campaign (NAC) at its inception in 1990. While the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners is a partner in the NAC, the plan was originally drawn up by hospital-based specialists. There is concern among GPs that they do not have sufficient time and knowledge to devise action plans and counsel patients about asthma management,4 as suggested in the AMP.

The effectiveness of patient education about asthma as proposed in the AMP has not been widely evaluated in general practice. Only one such study has been reported,6 and only one nationwide survey of selected GPs was conducted before the launch of the NAC intervention.7

We aimed to examine patient knowledge about asthma and its management, self-management skills, impact of asthma on quality of life, and attitudes to asthma. We compared these between patients managed in general practice and in a hospital clinic over a six-month period that coincided with widespread advertising and dissemination of the AMP.

Design and setting
The study was a cross-sectional survey with six months' longitudinal follow-up during 1994-1995. There was no intervention, and patients received their usual care from their GPs or hospital specialists. The study was conducted at the Alfred Hospital Asthma and Allergy Clinic, Melbourne, Victoria, and at 13 general practices near the hospital. Fourteen GPs were recruited by a practising GP (L L). The study was approved by the Ethics Review Committee at the Alfred Hospital.

Subjects Consecutive patients being seen for asthma at the participating general practices were nominated by their GPs. Of 54 patients invited to participate, 44 were recruited (nine refused or did not respond and one died). Sixty-one patients were recruited from the Alfred Clinic. Inclusion and exclusion criteria were reported previously.8 All patients gave written informed consent. Diagnosis of asthma was based on American Thoracic Society criteria.9

Assessments Clinical and demographic characteristics of patients were determined by questionnaire. The term "priority asthmatic" was given to asthmatics who had severe and precipitately acute attacks of asthma; they had usually (but not necessarily) been admitted to an intensive care unit. Forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) was obtained from the records of the lung function laboratory, and predicted FEV1 at baseline was calculated for males and females separately, as suggested by Gibson et al.10 The mean daily peak expiratory flow (PEF) variability was estimated from patient diaries.5 Severity of asthma was classified as mild, moderate or severe based on medication use, as reported previously.8 Medication was grouped into generic categories.

Outcome measures
Patients completed the Asthma General Knowledge,11 Quality of Life,12 Self-Management Skills,13 and Attitudes and Beliefs14 questionnaires on entry and six months later. Selection of these outcomes was based on the asthma education targets and outcome measures proposed by the National Asthma Campaign.15

Statistical analysis
Data were analysed with the SAS for Windows statistical package.16 Categorical variables were summarised as percentages, and associations were tested in contingency tables by χ2 tests. For continuous variables that were normally distributed, differences in mean scores were assessed by Student's t test. For continuous variables that were not normally distributed, the Wilcoxon signed rank and rank sum tests were used.

Participation Follow-up questionnaires were returned by 39 of the 44 (87%) GP patients (with five of those with the most severe asthma lost to follow-up) and by 47 of the 61 (77%) hospital patients (with the remaining 14 either lost to follow-up or not responding).

Subject characteristics
Characteristics of the two patient groups are shown in Box 1. They were similar in age and sociodemographic characteristics, including occupation (data not shown), except that the GP group had a significantly higher proportion of tertiary-educated people and of current smokers than the hospital group.

GP patients had less exercise limitation and milder asthma than the hospital patients, and were less likely to have been admitted to hospital and to have priority asthma. There was no significant difference in lung function or other clinical parameters (data not shown).

GP patients were significantly less likely to use theophylline and to have a written asthma action plan than hospital patients. Proportions using β-agonists, anticholinergics, and inhaled or oral steroids and owning peak flow meters were not significantly different in the two groups.

Asthma outcome measures
Asthma knowledge: Asthma General Knowledge scores did not differ significantly between the GP and hospital groups either at baseline (means, 20.2 and 20.5 out of 31, respectively) or six months later. Scores increased in both groups over the six months, but the increase was significant only in the GP group (P = 0.002), which had a mean score increase of 1.66 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.58 to 2.76) compared with 0.83 (95% CI, 20.39 to 2.03) in the hospital group.

Quality of life: Scores for impact of asthma on quality of life are shown in Box 2. Impact at baseline was significantly greater in the hospital group than in the GP group for total quality of life and the subcategories of breathlessness, social disruption, and concern for health, but not mood disturbance. After six months, impact had significantly decreased in the hospital group for all these parameters except mood disturbance, but there was no significant change in the GP group. Despite the significant decrease in the hospital group, impact was still significantly greater than in the GP group for total quality of life (P = 0.03), social disruption (P = 0.008) and concern for health (P = 0.04). None of the improvements in quality of life differed significantly between the two groups over six months.

Self-management skills: At baseline, the hospital group had a significantly higher median score for knowledge about self-management of a rapid onset asthma attack than the GP group (P = 0.02), but the two groups had similar scores for a slow onset attack (Box 3). After six months, the hospital group had significantly improved its slow onset scenario score (P = 0.02), but the GP group had not. Overall, there was no difference in the median change over six months in scores for either scenario between the two groups.

Attitudes and beliefs about asthma: Patients' attitudes and beliefs about their asthma are shown in Box 4. At baseline, hospital patients were significantly more likely than GP patients to believe that their asthma was severe, but also that it would improve in the future. After six months, hospital patients were significantly less optimistic (P = 0.03), and the difference in this parameter between the two groups was no longer significant. The proportion of patients who said they could do everything they wanted regardless of the effect it might have on their asthma did not differ significantly between the two groups at baseline, but at follow-up hospital patients were significantly less likely to say this than GP patients.

More hospital than GP patients wished their doctor would talk more to them about their asthma at both baseline and six-month follow-up, but the difference was significant only at follow-up. Concomitantly, fewer hospital patients than GP patients felt that their doctor had told them everything they wanted to know about their asthma; the difference was significant at both baseline and follow-up.

Discussion We found that our samples of GP and hospital patients with asthma differed in sociodemographic and clinical parameters, quality of life, self-management skills and attitudes and knowledge about asthma.

Some of our findings about the GP sample were more positive than reported previously. Use of inhaled steroids was significantly higher than found in random community samples,17,18 possibly because our sample of GP patients had more severe asthma, or because of industry promotion of these drugs.18 It is also possible that this form of treatment has become more acceptable in our group of GPs, many of whom had a particular interest in asthma. Use of peak flow meters and prevalence of written action plans in the GP patients were also higher than previously reported,17,18 but, once again, this finding may be confounded by the group of GPs studied. Actual prevalence of peak flow meter use and written action plans may be substantially lower in more typical general practices.

There was some evidence from our study that implementation of the AMP may have improved, especially in general practice, over the period of our study. However, despite NAC recommendations, half of the hospital patients and three-quarters of the GP patients had no written asthma action plans; and about a third of the hospital patients and half of the GP patients did not have access to a peak flow meter. While our study sheds no light on the reasons for these findings, it demonstrates that there was room for improvement in asthma management in both settings, but particularly in general practice.

Asthma knowledge among the GP patients was similar to that among the hospital patients at baseline, but improved more over the six months to follow-up. This was possibly due to the GP patients' higher educational level, our interaction with them during the study or better than average care from their doctors. As doctors had recruited the patients to the study, they may have put more effort into educating them before follow-up, although we have no evidence for this.

The absence of any significant improvement in quality of life among the GP patients after six months suggests that insufficient attention may be given to this aspect of asthma. Furthermore, the potential selection bias towards milder disease and the loss to follow-up of five of those with more severe asthma from the GP group may have biased the results away from detecting improvement. Overall, the general practice group had better quality of life than the hospital group. This would be expected, as the GP group had milder disease with fewer hospital admissions. It is surprising that mood disturbance was the only category which did not differ between the two groups at baseline. Possibly moods such as sadness, depression and frustration are similar in all patients regardless of the severity of asthma.

At baseline, the GP group was less able to manage the rapid onset attack, perhaps because they were likely to have experienced fewer such attacks. The hospital group improved their ability to manage slow onset attacks significantly over six months. Maybe their doctors educated them informally, although they did not have access to the results of the questionnaires. Alternatively, participants may have improved their answers with practice, but as this did not happen in the GP group it is unlikely.

There was little difference in attitudes and beliefs about asthma between groups. However, at six months, the hospital group was significantly less optimistic about their asthma improving in the future than the GP group. This could result from the difference in asthma severity between the two groups, which resulted in hospital patients having a more realistic appreciation of their poor prognosis after education. At six months, more of the hospital patients than GP patients also wished that their doctors would tell them more about their asthma. Perhaps this reflects a low level of communication between doctors and patients in the hospital asthma clinic compared with general practice and requires further study.

This study has some limitations. The GP patients may not be representative of the total general practice population, and recruiting interested GPs may have biased results. In the absence of any viable alternative strategy, evaluation focused on patients rather than GPs. Despite potential sampling and selection biases, the results highlight the impact of patient education among patients attending general practices and the differences between GP and hospital patients. Future educational initiatives should take such differences into account. The type and scope of patient education in general practice and hospitals should be thoroughly evaluated to identify areas in which GPs and specialists could be trained and supported more effectively. Continued dissemination and implementation of the Australian AMP is required to improve the self-management skills of patients in general practice.

We acknowledge a public health postgraduate research scholarship from the National Health and Medical Research Council. Dr Andrew Forbes, Jan Driver and Michael Bailey provided statistical support. We are grateful to the general practitioners who participated in the study. Drs Guy Marks, Rae Allen and Bonnie Sibbald gave permission to use their questionnaires. Dr John Kolbe gave permission to use his scoring system for the asthma attack scenarios.

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(Received 28 Sep 1998, accepted 7 Jun 1999)

Authors' details Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash Medical School, The Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, VIC.
Omar A Abdulwadud, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow;
Michael J Abramson, PhD, FRACP, Associate Professor.

Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Monash Medical School, The Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, VIC.
Larry Light, MB BS, Clinical Assistant;
Francis C K Thien, MD, FRACP, Staff Physician.

Department of Respiratory Medicine, Monash Medical School, The Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, VIC.
E Haydn Walters, DM, FRACP, Professor, and Director of Respiratory Medicine.

Reprints: Associate Professor M J Abramson, Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash Medical School, The Alfred Hospital, Prahran, VIC 3181.

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Received 24 September 2018, accepted 24 September 2018

  • Omar A Abdulwadud
  • Michael J Abramson
  • Larry Light



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