A weather alert service run by the UK's Meteorological Office that forecasts when weather is likely to be bad for COPD patients and alerts them to take simple precautions, has achieved a 20 per cent drop in COPD hospital admissions in areas that use the scheme.

According to the Meteorological Office (Met Office), over 8,500 patients from 160 practices are already signed up to the scheme, which essentially does two things: it warns people when the outdoor environment is likely to be bad for their health, and it reminds them what to do to keep themselves well.

Called Healthy Outlook(R) COPD Forecast Alert, the scheme costs 18 pounds per patient per winter (plus a set up fee) and includes training in health forecasting for healthcare professionals, a weekly (twice weekly in the winter) email COPD forecast, a COPD patient register, and a direct to patient contact scheme for when the forecast reaches the "elevated" category.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term covering lung conditions like bronchitis and emphysema that are long-term and gradually get worse. There is no cure but a lot can be done to relieve the symptoms of COPD.

According to the British Lung Foundation, the vast majority of people have never heard of COPD, yet it's the UK's fifth biggest killer and claims about 30,000 lives a year.

Every year the NHS spends 600 million pounds looking after people with COPD and there are 100,000 COPD-related hospital admissions in England.

The Healthy Outlook scheme issues an email twice a week in winter and once a week in summer. The email forecasts the COPD risk over the coming week, giving it either a "Normal" or "Elevated" category, and it also includes an outlook for the following week.

The scheme includes a direct patient contact register that is triggered when the risk is "Elevated". Operated in conjuction with Medixine, the system contacts registered patients by telephone to warn them of the expected worsening conditions and asks them to look at their information pack for further advice. It then asks them whether their symptoms are worse than normal, and whether they have enough medication for the next two weeks.

The patients' practice staff also get an email the day before the calls are made and also when they are complete. The patient's responses are kept in a database that practice staff can look at to do any follow up.

GPs can put patients on the direct contact register by sending them an invititation letter. They can add patients to the register using a simple web-based form.

The Met Office said areas that joined the scheme last winter include: Rhondda Cynon Taff Local Health Board, East Lothian, Moray and West Glasgow Community Health Partnerships, Worcestershire, Bradford, Cornwall and West Cheshire Primary Care Trusts.

New areas that have signed up to use the scheme this winter include Stoke, Torbay, Devon, and another in Northern Ireland.

According to the BBC, the Met Office has surveyed over 3,000 patients on the scheme and found that one third of them were prompted to contact their GP to get a repeat prescription and 11 per cent asked their doctor about worsening symptoms. Some patients said the service made them feel someone cared, and one patient said it was useful for "adjusting lifestyle to take account of the weather conditions", and in "planning and ordering medication".

Chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, Dame Helena Shovelton, told the BBC that the scheme was a "great benefit", and that:

"Being aware of detrimental weather conditions enables people to plan ahead and avoid situations that could aggravate their condition."

But she said being on the scheme should not make patients complacent and it should not be seen as a replacement for important services like rehabilitation classes which can help patients increase their lung fitness, and seeing specialist nurses, although she admitted that not everyone has access to these services.

Click here for more information about Healthy Outlook(R) COPD Forecast Alert (Met Office).

Sources: Met Office, BBC.

: Catharine Paddock, PhD

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