Results of the BREATHE asthma trial. The end of a long research journey.

Asthma is a common lung condition that can have serious health and well-being consequences. We know there are still many people who find their asthma has a negative impact on their day-to-day lives, even though they take their prescribed medicines/ inhalers regularly. Breathing retraining is a non-drug therapy that has been found to have benefits for some people with asthma, but the UK National Health Service does not have enough appropriately trained physiotherapists to deliver it to all those who might benefit. One solution to this problem is to find effective alternatives to the conventional face-to-face method of delivery.

From 2011 to 2016 we were funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to carry out a programme of work (Breathing REtraining for Asthma Trial of Home Exercises – known as BREATHE) at the University of Southampton, to develop and test a new way of delivering breathing retraining for asthma. We have recently reported our findings in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal and in a full NIHR HTA report. There is also an NIHR Signal about our work. In this blog you can read a short summary of what we did and what we found.

Main BREATHE trial findings

Breathing exercises taught either by a physiotherapist in person, or by using a DVD (and booklet) that we developed, improved the quality of life of adults with poorly controlled asthma. The DVD was the cheaper option, and should lead to inexpensive internet-based delivery in the near future. The study version of the digital breathing retraining (Breathing Freely) is already available here for free. In future a version better suited for mobile use will be developed for internet users.

BREATHE trial summary

655 adults with asthma took part in our trial. We divided them into 3 groups. One group had breathing retraining via a DVD and booklet, one group had breathing retraining taught face-to-face with a physiotherapist, and one group received their usual medical care.

The group who learned the breathing techniques from the DVD and booklet (DVDB group) had equivalent benefits to the group who had the face-to-face teaching, and both were better than the group who had usual care. The size of the benefit was similar to that produced by ‘stepping up’ asthma medication. The benefits occurred despite not seeing any measurable change in airways physiology or inflammation. Our study confirms the improvements over usual care previously reported in smaller studies for ‘face-to-face’ physiotherapist taught programmes for asthma, but uniquely we have shown that the DVDB programme gave equivalent clinically relevant benefits more conveniently and inexpensively. No adverse effects were found.

The graph below shows the changes in our primary outcome measure (Asthma related Quality of Life AQLQ) for each group over time. The AQLQ is scored from 1 (severely impaired) to 7 (not impaired), with a change of 0.5 being deemed clinically relevant.

BREATHE intervention development 

Before starting the actual trial, we developed an evidence-based, self-guided way to learn physiotherapy breathing retraining, delivered through a DVD with a printed supporting booklet. This was based on an existing breathing retraining programme taught by clinical physiotherapists, that had already been shown to be effective in poorly controlled asthma. The intervention materials consisted of:

  • Detailed explanation and illustration of how to carry out the exercises, with footage showing a physiotherapist teaching them to patients
  • Motivational components, explaining the rationale and addressing common concerns
  • Support (such as a daily planner and progress charts) for practicing and implementing the techniques in daily life

The materials were piloted and finalised with 29 people with asthma (sampled for diversity of age, gender, education and symptom profile), using person-based ‘think aloud’ methods to elicit their reactions and modify the materials based on their feedback.

Clinical implications

Physiotherapy breathing retraining programmes improve quality of life and are cost-effective in adults with asthma. However, they do not seem to affect the underlying disease process in terms of airways physiology or inflammation. Our research shows that physiotherapy breathing retraining can be delivered by a simple self-guided digital intervention as effectively as, and at lower cost than, interventions requiring face-to-face contact.

Key messages for people with asthma

  • Our new digital physiotherapy breathing retraining programme can improve asthma-related quality of life, as much as face-to-face physiotherapy breathing retraining.
  • The training does not appear to affect the underlying biology of your disease, or ‘cure’ your asthma, so you need to keep taking your prescribed medicines as normal.

Go to more information about the breathing retraining we used.


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Physiotherapy breathing retraining for asthma: participants’ experiences from the BREATHE trial

Breathing Freely booklet designed for BREATHE trial

Poor symptom control and impaired quality of life are common in adults with asthma, and breathing retraining exercises may be an effective method of self-management. We recently completed a large trial of physiotherapy breathing retraining for asthma known as BREATHE. In this trial 655 adults with asthma were randomised into one of three groups. One group had no extra treatment, while the two other groups both had physiotherapy breathing retraining delivered in different ways (either face to face or via a DVD – which now sounds ancient but at the time we were seeking funding this was cutting edge tech!). Both groups also received a booklet we designed called Breathing Freely – which provided information and behaviour change support. As part of this work we wanted to find out what the experience of having the breathing retraining was like for the people in the trial. This part of our research has now been published and you can read it in full here, but for those who just want a summary, this is the page for you.

Main headline: Physiotherapy breathing retraining delivered either face-to-face or by DVD was acceptable and valued by almost all participants, with many reporting improved health and wellbeing. It is therefore likely to be well received as a method of asthma management.

Participants in the face to face group were very positive about the physiotherapist. And all those interviewed from the DVD group said they would have preferred to see a physiotherapist. Nevertheless, the BREATHE trial results show that face-to-face physiotherapy was no more effective than the DVD (although both were superior to usual care). However, I still think that some people will need face-to-face instruction in order to master the techniques. The challenge is identifying who needs this extra support.

What we did

We followed a qualitative research design, using telephone interviews to explore participants’ experiences of being in the trial. Sixteen people took part (8 from the DVD group and 8 from the face to face group). There were 11 women and 5 men, aged between 23 and 70. All the phone interviews were audiorecorded (with permission) and then transcribed for analysis.

What we found

Five main themes emerged from the telephone interviews

  1. Reasons for taking part
  2. Experience of breathing retraining
  3. Impact of breathing retraining
  4. Benefits of breathing retraining
  5. Problems with breathing retraining

1. Participants’ reasons for taking part

  • Because they were asked to
  • To enhance progress in research
  • To feel better/reduce symptoms
  • To reduce medication

 I had my um annual asthma check-up and they just asked me if I would do it kind of there and then so I just said that I would. “ (P9, female, DVD)“because I would support research that is going to improve things for human beings.” (P16, male, F2F)

“I was just hoping it would … help my breathing when I went up hills … because that’s what I was particularly concerned with.” (P2, female, DVD)

“I liked the idea of a natural solution to the asthma rather than having to take medication.” (P4, female, F2F)

 2. Participants’ experience of breathing retraining

  • Both groups positive
  • Face to face: very positive experience of the physiotherapist, who tailored the treatment and was motivational.
  • DVD: materials were helpful

“the lady that did them was really, really nice. She wasn’t condescending in any way, she was really patient, she was very quick to praise when you did it right” (P14, female, F2F)

When I spoke to [the physiotherapist] about it, originally because I was having problems with it, she said just try and set myself little goals. So what I do is when I leave the house I set myself a goal to breathe through my nose to a certain point and then I will do it again, you know, I will get to this point and then I will try and breathe through my nose again.” (P5, female, F2F)

“ … when she said, “Now, I need you to do these exercises at home,” she saw the look on my face and she said, “Would you like me to write the instructions down?” And I said, “Yes, please.” And, because I’d already done the actual training bit in my session the instructions put it back into my mind what I had to do and I found it really, really informative.” (P14, female, F2F)

I liked having the person there. It is not so much that she told me off when I hadn’t done the exercises but it is like an extra conscience.” (P5, female, F2F)

 The participants in the DVD group were positive but less effusive about the experience. They found both the booklet and DVD to be helpful

I liked the booklet better … because I could just pick it up and, you know, look at it and do some of the exercises when I wanted to.” (P2, female, DVD)

“I found by reading the booklet and then watching the DVD the two matched and I could see what was meant.” (P13, female, DVD)

“… with the DVD it was actually showing you.” (P11, male, DVD)

3. Participants’ perceptions of the impact of breathing retraining

  • Increased awareness of breathing
  • Development of new habits

I’m a habitual mouth breather and to realise that I’d been breathing wrong all my life was a bit of an eye opener”. (P10, female, F2F)

“I do try to make myself aware of breathing through my nose all the time.” (P11, male, DVD)

“I can at rest actually do the stomach breathing pretty much naturally now.” (P3, female, DVD)

4.  Participants’ perceptions of the benefits of breathing retraining

  • Increased control over breathing,
  • Reduced need for medication,
  • Feeling more relaxed,
  • Improved health
  • Improved quality of life

 “I had two asthma attacks last year … and actually being able to do this breathing helped a lot and I didn’t have to go to hospital. “ (P14, female, F2F)

“I don’t have to keep getting my inhaler and taking my inhaler, I can literally just do some of these breathing and I feel much better.” (P5, female, F2F)

“… when things have got a bit busy I have been very conscious to do it and I’ve found it very helpful and very calming.” (P15, male, F2F)

“I also used to get very wheezy first thing in the morning and that doesn’t seem to be happening now.”(P3, female, DVD)

“I sleep so much better.” (P14, female, F2F)

5. Participants’ perceptions of problems with breathing retraining

  • Difficulties finding time to practice
  • Difficulty mastering some techniques

“Initially quite hard to get started. It was finding the time I think and putting aside a regular time so that I didn’t skip things.” (P13, female, DVD)

“I could do as many BREATHE’s in the evening when I’m sat at home… but finding the time throughout the day when I’m at work, that was a bit more challenging”. (P5, female, F2F)

“ I have to say um, no matter how I tried, and on the DVD it said it would come eventually, I cannot breathe through my diaphragm.” (P7, female, DVD)

“I can’t quite master the stomach breathing when I am moving around, but no doubt that will come.” (P3, female, DVD)

Implications for practice

  1. Breathing retraining was well received by participants in both groups, and is likely to be acceptable and valued as an add-on treatment in general practice.
  2. Participants were positive about face-to-face physiotherapy, due to liking the physiotherapist, appreciating that she tailored the content to their needs, and finding appointments motivational.
  3. However, a DVD / internet delivery format is much more widely available and costs considerably less to deliver.
  4. Face-to-face physiotherapy did not demonstrate increased benefit in terms of quality of life.

Therefore, making our physiotherapy breathing retraining DVD widely available may lead to improved asthma control in the general population. To increase the confidence of individuals carrying out breathing retraining delivered by DVD/ internet, it might be helpful to inform them that our research has not shown greater benefits for face-to-face physiotherapy.

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“I think you’ve got to question what exactly we’ve got to offer them”. Views on targeted case-finding for COPD.

We carried out a study to find out what health care professionals think about ‘case-finding’ for people with a chronic lung condition known as COPD. One of the current goals for the NHS is to look for  people who are living with COPD, but who have not been formally diagnosed by a health professional. This strategy is known as ‘Finding the missing millions’, and became part of the Department of Health strategy for England back in 2010. Earlier diagnosis means that people can be helped to live well with the condition – because although there is no cure for COPD, there are effective therapies that can make life better.

There are two main ways that earlier diagnosis can be achieved. One is to test all people thought to be at high risk of having the condition, irrespective of whether they have symptoms or not. The other is to test only those people who have previously presented with symptoms that are suggestive of COPD. Screening people with no symptoms is currently not supported by the evidence, but screening people with symptoms is generally deemed to be a good thing. This sort of ‘case-finding’ can be approached in two ways: 1) targeted case-finding (where people with symptoms are systematically identified), or 2) opportunistic case-finding (where people are identified when they visit a healthcare clinician for other reasons). Although case-finding is deemed to be a ‘good thing’ at Department of Health level, there has historically been some resistance among health professionals who have been reported to hold negative beliefs about the benefits of early diagnosis. Understanding these views, and identifying facilitators and barriers to case-finding, is important to enable us to conduct successful case-finding initiatives in future.

Our study aimed to explore the views of GPs, nurses and practice managers on targeted case-finding for COPD within general practices in the South of England. Below is a brief outline of the study. The main paper can be accessed here.

What we did

We wanted to talk to health care professionals who worked in GP practices. So we emailed out information to 99 GP practices in Wessex (UK) and told as many people about the study as possible, through social media and advertisements. In total, 36 people (14 nurses, 12 GPs, 10 Practice Managers) from 34 GP practices agreed to be interviewed over the telephone. Conversations were audiorecorded and then transcribed (written down) for analysis.

What we found:

There was general support for case-finding amongst this group of nurses, GPs and practice managers. Most people we spoke to were supportive of the concept, with opportunistic case-finding being the usual approach. Some concerns were raised:


  • Possible limited effectiveness due to problems with electronic record coding
  • Possible low uptake
  • Lack of evidence for benefit of case-finding over perceived potential disadvantages to patients
  • Possible increases to the practice’s prescription expenditure
  • Possible increased expenditure for secondary care referral
  • Identifying more people with COPD than they had capacity to review could lead to a failure to meet QOF targets and hence decreases to practice income.


  • Conversely, some interviewees welcomed the prospect of identifying more people with COPD within their practices, believing this to be beneficial for both improving patient care and generating QOF related revenue for the practice

Detailed findings:

We organised people’s views under two main themes:

  1. Views on diagnosing COPD
  2. Views on approaches to COPD case-finding

Views on diagnosing COPD

Everyone we spoke to thought diagnosing COPD was important.

I think that’s an important thing to do and obviously by stopping the decline in lung function, we can keep patients better, more well for longer, and also reduce the impact the disease has not only on themselves but on the NHS in terms of exacerbations, prescriptions involving expensive medication”. [GP 10102, Male]

But not all agreed when the ‘best’ time to diagnose it might be. Some expressed doubts about the benefits of identifying people with mild symptoms:

if people come to you and you give them a diagnosis of mild COPD, I think you’ve got to question what exactly we’ve got to offer them. Like I say, is it a case of diagnosing them, they still smoke and they want to change and take a step to stop smoking, that’s very good […] but given that we’re only going to start them on symptomatic management, if they’re not feeling symptomatic I’m not sure what benefit it is in just telling them they’ve got mild COPD.” [GP 33113, Male]

Others were worried about the costs (time and money) related to the effects of finding more people with COPD:

Time. […] I’m also looking after all the asthmatics. I’m also expected to do travel vaccinations, B12s, sorting immunisation, you name it. It’s a time implication isn’t it? So if I end up with [100 more] patients with COPD, [who] I’ve got to see a minimum of 30 minutes a year, usually more than that, let’s be honest. So the more patients you have, the more people you’ve got to see on a regular basis” [Practice Nurse 07207, Female]

COPD is only one condition among all the others competing for GP practice time and attention. Practice priorities are dictated by a combination of local patient needs and national clinical targets such as the National Quality and Outcomes Frame Work (known as QOF and pronounced like quaff).

Interviewer:  So what influences this prioritisation?

Practice Manager 11301: There are two parts to this, really. One of them is clinical need, based on the extent of the problem, and the other one, although it sounds quite bad to say it, is financial. […] for a practice to earn its money, we have to achieve a certain number of points which are related to the quality and outcomes framework QOF enhanced service. So we try to balance it out across all of the areas so that everything is dealt fairly, but sometimes if you have a low prevalence in one particular area and it’s higher in the other, it is more – I don’t like using this word, but it’s more profitable to concentrate on the areas where you have the higher prevalence […] But as I said, that has to be balanced with clinical need and the need of the patient.


Views on approaches to COPD case-finding

Most people we spoke to were supportive of the concept of case-finding, with opportunistic case-finding being the usual approach. Many were interested in electronic targeted case-finding:

That’s how I would like to work, where you’re targeting the people, the actual patients that may well have COPD but haven’t yet presented for anything to do with COPD. I think it would be so much better to be able to do that rather than the opportunistic.”[Practice Nurse 29213, Female]

But some were doubtful about the reliability of electronic searches, and others had concerns that targeted case-finding would place higher demands on a practice when it was already stretched.

“I think as long as it was resourced […] I think many people would be very interested but it would need to be resourced, either with a research nurse or equivalent funds to do that. I think trying to recycle it out of current workload would be very challenging’ [GP 32112, Male]

“Provided the time and resource, […] and if you can wrap it up with some education then it’s a win for the practice in terms of education. […] make sure that the practice sees that both them and their patients are getting something positive out of it and it isn’t going to be too time consuming”. [GP 23109, Male]

A key finding was that not everyone thought targeted case-finding was worthwhile. Two GPs and one practice manager expressed this view, though their explanations differed slightly. One GP considered the issues with electronic records (such as clinician variability in use of key words and condition codes) to render electronic searching too unreliable. The other GP argued that opportunistic case-finding was more likely to result in finding people who were likely to accept the need for behaviour change, in contrast to targeted case-finding, which he considered more likely to identify those who were not yet ready to listen to advice or intervention.

I think that this opportunistic case-finding is definitely the best approach to adopt. I don’t think that extending that into patients who don’t perceive themselves to have a problem is anywhere near as productive.”  [GP 08101, Male].

Lack of public engagement with screening programmes was also believed to be a problem, with some interviewees having experienced low uptake in previous case-finding initiatives.

There was general support for case-finding amongst this group of nurses, GPs and practice managers. Most were very interested in the idea of targeted case-finding, but had concerns that targeted case-finding could have limited effectiveness due to problems with electronic record coding, and would have additional resource implications. Financial concerns were around 1) increases to the practice’s prescription expenditure, 2) increased expenditure for secondary care referral, and 3) decreases to practice income if the practice failed to fulfil QOF criteria for COPD. There was also concern that identifying many more people with COPD than they had capacity to review would lead to a failure to meet QOF targets. Conversely, some interviewees welcomed the prospect of identifying more people with COPD within their practices, believing this to be beneficial for both improving patient care and generating QOF related revenue for the practice.



Getting GP practice staff to use targeted case-finding for COPD requires a number of barriers to be overcome. Key concerns for the people we interviewed were lack of evidence for the benefit of targeted case-finding over perceived potential disadvantages to patients, and concerns over need for additional resources. Our findings suggest that one way to enhance practice engagement with targeted case-finding initiatives would be to provide additional administrators and clinicians to support targeted searches, and to perform the spirometry tests needed to diagnose COPD. Our study reflects the ongoing uncertainty amongst some clinicians about the value of early diagnosis of COPD. Clinicians who remain unconvinced will require stronger evidence of the benefits of early diagnosis and the impact of early intervention.


Full citation:

Summers R, Sharmeen T, Lippiett K, Gillett K, Astles C, Vu L, Stafford-Watson M, Bruton A, Thomas M, Wilkinson T (2017) A qualitative study of GP, nurse and practice manager views on using targeted case-finding to identify patients with COPD in primary care. npj Primary Care Respiratory Medicine 27 (49) doi:10.1038/s41533-017-0049-3


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What do you think about the idea of having breathing retraining for your asthma?

A few years ago, we designed a qualitative study to gain some insight into what people think about breathing retraining as a therapy, using face-to-face recorded interviews with 29 people with asthma. We also wanted to get some feedback on a booklet we had designed to accompany breathing retraining in a large asthma trial (known as BREATHE). The booklet is called “Breathing Freely: Your guide to breathing retraining for asthma”. The full journal paper about the qualitative  study can be accessed here. This blog provides a summary.

Breathing retraining involves teaching various techniques (such as advice on route of breathing, slow abdominal breathing, relaxation techniques) to modify breathing patterns and improve breathing efficiency. The therapy can lead to reduced symptoms and improved quality of life (QoL) for some people with asthma; it may also reduce use of reliever medication, and has been recommended in various national guidelines for adults whose asthma remains uncontrolled despite taking their medications.

We targeted people who had asthma, but most had no prior experience of using breathing retraining. The interviews had two parts: firstly some open-ended questions to explore attitudes to breathing retraining exercises in the context of personal health beliefs and lifestyle; and then using ‘think-aloud’ methods to get people’s reactions to the booklet. In this part, people were asked to read a draft version of the booklet and say out loud everything they thought about each page, as they read it.

Main Findings: implications for practice

  • Uptake of / adherence to breathing retraining for asthma will probably be greater among those who perceive their asthma as more severe and/or wish to reduce their reliance on medication.
  • We should present breathing retraining techniques as skills for life that can benefit even those with mild/intermittent symptoms, rather than as illness management that is only relevant to those with severe symptoms.
  • We should explain that practising in the short term can lead to lifelong automatic skills requiring little conscious effort.
  • We should emphasise that breathing retraining exercises do NOT provide an effective substitute for preventative medication.
  • We should provide appropriate supportive materials
  • Consider allowing contact with therapists – either face-to-face or online – to support those who experience setbacks, and to help maintain motivation.
  • Address co-existing problems such as allergic rhinitis, to help people do the nose breathing.

Detailed Findings

People with asthma already had some awareness of breathing retraining as a therapy, and the idea of altering breathing patterns, but most of this came from daily life experiences rather than from contact with a health professional:

“I know there was a Butekyo method and I tried looking that up but it didn’t tell you anything very much about what was involved …” (Participant 18)

“I did play a bit of trumpet when I was a teenager and my teacher told me how to breathe better through my nose and, you know, how to fill up my lungs by starting with pushing out the stomach and all the way down and filling up the lungs and then all the way up to the top of the chest and into the neck.” (Participant 15)

“I know about breathing more slowly and breathing through my nose because I do yoga.” (Participant 18)

We organised people’s perceptions of breathing retraining into four main themes around what they thought would be: advantages, disadvantages, facilitators, barriers


Anticipated advantages of breathing retraining

Medication related advantages. Most of those interviewed expressed negative views about having to take their asthma medication in the long-term, and several said they did not take their prescribed medication as they should.

“I prefer natural forms of therapy. I prefer … I mean I don’t actually take the preventative inhaler, the brown one, because I don’t, I’m sure it works, but I don’t like taking medication too much, so I prefer any kind of forms that naturally help cope with asthma” (Participant 20)

Breathing exercises were seen as a more natural way to manage asthma and a way to help reduce reliance on medication.

“I like the element that it’s, umm, it’s proving that something that isn’t a drug can help you … so what it says to me this is going to give me more than just relying on, umm, my … my inhalers.” (Participant 25)

Some thought breathing retraining would be much less conspicuous to use than inhalers. This was important as some mentioned being stigmatised because of their asthma, and so tried to hide it.

“Umm, I do get mocked kind of semi-regularly if they see me kind of using my inhaler: ‘Oh here comes (participant) with her inhaler again’.” (Participant 7)

 “I think, you know, it is a very unobtrusive way of, umm, managing things. I mean, yeah, I don’t think that it would necessarily be something people would even know that you were doing.” (Participant 16)

People viewed breathing retraining as a more holistic therapy than medication, that would promote general well-being and help with managing life’s demands.

“I think it would also be good to try something that, umm, is not only positive to your asthma but positive actually to do overall. Umm, because there is almost something that is quite easy to sell in this in the sense that, whilst it is for asthma, breathing retraining is something that is useful generally in life, umm, and things like the relaxation or the fact that it can release just tightness anyway and, yeah, it’s more than just asthma.” (Participant 22)

Symptom related advantages. People believed breathing retraining would give them more control over their symptoms. They thought they would feel less anxious about being exposed to triggers as they would have a management tool readily available.

“I think it’s the fact that it’s something you can always do. So once you’ve learnt how to do it, you probably won’t need the booklet anymore and if you are in a place where you feel your asthma is going to get bad or it’s just something … it’s a kind of confidence that you’ve kind of got.” (Participant 11)

“I think that when you are an asthmatic you don’t feel like you are in control, you’re always just trying to manage it rather than like prevent anything happening. Whereas with training, if you, if something happens and you start to feel wheezy and you then feel like you can control it, I think you feel better about asthma.” (Participant 13


Anticipated disadvantages of breathing retraining

Some  thought breathing retraining was not relevant to them personally, because their asthma was not bad enough, or the wrong type.

“I am thinking breathing exercises are good for some people but not for me because of the type of asthma that I have, which is firstly not that bad and, secondly, exercise and allergy induced.” (Participant 28)

The time and effort required to carry out the breathing exercises (recommended as 15 minutes twice a day for at least three weeks) was viewed as a disadvantage (and a barrier) by almost everyone.

“I dunno if I’d actually do it properly, you know, ‘cause I know it’s only 10–15 minutes but it’s still like … you know, you’ve still got to like fit it in to what you are doing.” (Participant 9)

“The first thing about like picking up a leaflet like this … is that often for me I work full time, I struggle to work full time because of my asthma, umm, and there are a hundred and one things that I should be doing for it and it’s making sure that the time is put aside for it”. (Participant 22)


Anticipated barriers to breathing retraining

Many people mentioned often feeling ‘bunged up’, which made nose breathing more difficult. Although they were aware nose breathing would likely benefit them, they felt it would be extremely difficult to master.

“… it says ‘Close your mouth and breathe through your nose’. I know, and I’m sure that probably a lot of people with asthma are like this, quite often you can’t breathe through your nose because you get bunged up all the time.” (Participant 11)

“I tend to panic when I breathe through my nose I must admit … For me breathing in through my nose is going to be really hard because I find it very difficult to breathe through my nose.” (Participant 20)

Several people thought doing the breathing retraining exercises twice a day would be a substantial commitment, and felt it would be hard to remember to do them and persevere with them.

“I do think it would probably work. It would just be the dedication of making yourself do it every day so that you train yourself to be able to do it.” (Participant 7)


Anticipated facilitators for breathing retraining

People thought that tracking progress and social support would help counteract the barriers of remembering to do breathing retraining and persevering with it.

“I think it would be good recording ‘cause then you could actually see also … see you are progressing, you could just get quite frustrated after a little while of doing it and just thinking ‘I don’t feel like I’m getting better at it’ and, you know, you could record in the back and see that actually I am slowly getting better.” (Participant 7)

Many felt social support would facilitate continued commitment to breathing retraining. They thought face-to-face support in the form of classes would facilitate mastery of the techniques and enable them to address concerns in person and overcome difficulties, thereby enhancing self-confidence and motivation for carrying out the techniques alone.

“… if there were a class … where you are with other people, all lying on the floor and there was actually someone talking you through it and walking around you saying ‘Just tuck your shoulders in a bit’, or whatever. Places like that I think would be really beneficial. I think it is quite hard to do something like that on your own and to think about whether you are getting it right or not.” (Participant 19)

Social support from peers and family members was also seen as extremely helpful. Participants thought their partners might remind them to do it, and that doing it with others would enhance motivation due to social pressure. An online forum was suggested as a helpful way of enabling people to share their experiences, and thus persevere.

Anything like this as compared with a group is so hard as an individual. There’s … you know, the social pressure on you to do what other people expect, at a given time, is so great… On the other hand, if I’m telling people and sharing it and sharing the experience, it’s the social power thing.” (Participant 21)



Breathing retraining exercises were viewed positively in principle, because they were seen as familiar, convenient, discreet and holistic techniques that did not involve medication, and would increase confidence in managing asthma symptoms. There were concerns expressed about the time required to carry out the exercises. Anticipated barriers also included remembering to do the exercises, persevering when alone, and difficulties with nose breathing. We conclude that breathing retraining is likely to be of interest to many adults with asthma, if offered and supported in a convenient format.


Full text
Emily Arden-Close, Emma Teasdale, Sarah Tonkin-Crine, Natasha Pitre, Mark Stafford-Watson, Denise Gibson, Anne Bruton, Mike Thomas, Lucy Yardley “Patients’ perceptions of the potential of breathing training for asthma: a qualitative studyPrimary Care Respiratory Journal 2013; 22(4): 449-453

Image from Breathing Freely booklet and DVD. Physiotherapist Denise Gibson with patient Darren Taylor

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Physios’ views on goal-setting for people with COPD

We set up a qualitative study to explore respiratory physiotherapists’ views of goals, and their experiences of goal-setting, with people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We conducted face-to-face interviews with 17 physiotherapists, which were audio-recorded for subsequent transcription and detailed analysis. Most of the physios worked with patients with COPD in pulmonary rehabilitation (some combining this with acute care), or in community settings.

The full paper can be accessed here. These are the edited highlights.

Key messages

  • Goal-setting in relation to COPD is challenging for respiratory physiotherapists.
  • There is considerable uncertainty among physios as to how goal-setting should best be approached.
  • Goal-setting can be driven by service needs, rather than patient needs. This creates tensions for clinicians who have a duty to fulfil both.
  • Clinicians need time and resources to undertake meaningful goal-setting, and may need additional postgraduate training to help them resolve some of these issues.

Three main themes emerged from our data analysis:

  • Theme 1: ‘Explaining goal-setting’ describes how goals were understood by physios, and their perceived purpose and value in respiratory rehabilitation.
  • Theme 2: ‘Working with goals’ explores physios’ accounts of working with goals (or not), and the practicalities associated with collaborative goal-setting.
  • Theme 3: ‘Influences on collaborative goal-setting’ highlights factors perceived by physios to be facilitating or hindering collaborative goal-setting.

Theme 1 – Explaining goal-setting

Definitions of goals  Goals were perceived as desirable achievements. Most stated goals should be personally meaningful to the individual patient, and identified from the outset. Aspects of the mnemonic SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed) featured heavily. SMART goals were perceived as desirable properties of a goal, but could not always be attained:

‘I think “what am I trying to achieve with them?” I think that’s what a goal is. It’s what ultimately you’re trying to achieve. And the goal has to be something that’s relevant to the patient.’ (Emma, Band 7, Community)

Bernice associated goals specifically with aspirational undertakings (like mountain climbing):

‘Functional things, like walking or stair climbing, rather than their goal might be to climb Mount Everest er, do you know what I mean? I find it quite difficult really to put a goal to something that’s just a general practical improvement really’ (Bernice, Band 8, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

And Lisa was unsure as to how to define goals:

‘I think if you think of a goal as something that facilitates behaviour change then that’s why it’s different from an outcome.  An outcome is the end result of doing your goals really, in a way.  Or using, I suppose a goal is working towards an outcome.  I’d.. yeah.. I think it’s really tricky I don’t think I really know.  I’m not sure it’s that clear’ (Lisa, Band 8, pulmonary rehabilitation)

Types of goals  These physios reported setting a variety of goals with patients, which could be considered as falling into one of four broad ‘types’; a) Aspirational, b) Functional, c) Condition understanding and d) Exercise related goals

Goal type Description Example quotation
Aspirational The term ‘aspirational’ distinguishes between everyday pursuits and those which were considered more unusual or ‘important’ life goals. Sometimes these types of goals were considered possible. Other times this term was used to describe patient desires considered to be unrealistic or ‘non-goals’. ‘we had one man in the current group he said ‘I want to walk up [name of hill], which is one of the tall peaks. [..]  So we put him on the programme [..] and he actually managed to get up [name of hill] after.’ (Jackie, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation)

 ‘sometimes you think you know that it’s unrealistic [..]  it’s a non-goal, like a new pair of lungs or I never want to be breathless again’ (Hazel, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

Functional Use of the term ‘function’ reflects its use in the physiotherapist interviews. Such goals had a direct and meaningful translation into the patient’s life, as opposed to those which purely related to exercise. It encompassed an array of pursuits from very mundane activities of daily living to the more unique. We had one guy who turned around and said [laughs], he said there’s a pub at the top of [name of road] but it’s a huge hill to get there [..] it was important to him because his grandchildren liked going up there and, he was feeling he wasn’t being able to be a granddad properly because he couldn’t go out with them so much and we worked really hard with him and he managed to go and do these things’ (Penny, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)
Condition understanding Goals to increase patients’ understanding of their own condition were widely discussed; patients were perceived to attend having received very little information about their condition and eager to know more. They [patients] don’t know why they’re breathless, their G.P or whoever’s diagnosed them, practice nurses or consultants, never really explain to them in a huge amount of detail. […] So they’re very keen to learn, they’re very keen to find out more to be able to maintain their health for as long as possible’. (Richard, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)
Exercise Exercise goals were those which related to improving physical performance in a specific exercise or physical outcome such as an increase in walking distance, or lower BORG breathlessness scores. ‘I have target goals and actual goals on an exercise programme, on an exercise sheet. [rustles papers; gets sheet to show RS] So what we would do then if that person did actually achieve one and a half minutes, what he actually achieved the following week then I would give him a target of one minute 50 seconds, constantly progressing, yeah? So then you are moving on, the goals are continually changing.’ (Georgina, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

Purposes of goal-setting  There was a distinction made between patient-oriented goals (having direct relevance to patients’ concerns) and professional or service-oriented goals:

‘you do have your generalised goals of you know broad things like improving anticipatory care erm but I don’t think ….that’s something you want all COPD patients […] When I think of patient specific goals I think of what does this patient want to be able to do, go to the hairdresser, the pub, get to the bathroom you know, be able to have a shower, you know things like that. I think that’s different, it’s very individualised thing it’s very different for every patient’ (Emma, Band 7, Community)

Patient-oriented purposes included seeing goal-setting as:

  • a means of giving patients hope: for example, hope that despite their difficulties with physical activity there was reason to continue‘It’s not pleasant to start exercising, for these patients, it’s not pleasant for anyone who’s unfit to get fit again, it’s even, you know, it, it’s much, much worse for them so they need to have that little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, something that they’re aiming for.’ (Hazel, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)
  • a vehicle for enabling patients to return to valued activities and pursuits and so enhancing their quality of life
  • a tool to enable clinicians to individualise rehabilitation ‘we’ll ask the patients “what are your main problems?” “what do you want us to do?” so we get an idea of what the patients actually, what the patient goals are and then tailor our treatment around what they actually want’ (Jackie, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation)
  • a means of demonstrating progress to patients. The physios associated ‘functional’, ‘aspirational’ and ‘condition understanding’ goals strongly with patient-oriented purposes.

Profession or service-oriented purposes included

  • To adhere to professional and service expectations. Goals are required within hospital documentation and by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), and goal-setting was emphasised during undergraduate training. But there was some uncertainty as to its usefulness

‘I guess it’s just that the CSP tell us that we’ve got to do this, that and the other and set patient-directed goals, […] And we haven’t really analysed whether it’s that important or not and it is difficult because we’re told to do this with everyone but we’ve not really looked at everyone to see if it’s important, with everyone’. (Oliver, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

  • To demonstrate service effectiveness to commissioners, to secure continued investment in services. Goals linked to exercise were often associated with this purpose.

‘Most people make a significant improvement in sort of exercise tolerance and general well-being through the programme.  They’re sort of the goals we sort of look towards from a service point of view, functional ones are there more as an incentive.’ (Richard, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

One physio explicitly described ‘patient goals’ agreed during a goal-setting conversation as “incentives” to facilitate achievement of other goals that were aligned to demonstrating service effectiveness.  Some even questioned whether goal-setting was anything more than a “tick-box exercise” and felt there was a lack of evidence to support the usefulness of goal-setting.

‘You know I think some health care professionals think they’re a lot better than they are ‘coz they can tick a whole lot of boxes because they can achieve goals with patients. But you turn around and ask that patient what do they actually think of that healthcare professional, and they probably tell you a completely different story’ (Danielle, Band 7, Community)


Theme 2 – Working with goals

Only two physios reported not setting any goals with patients.

Setting goals  The process of goal-setting was often depicted as being a “negotiation”. But this idea of a negotiation was at odds with the realities of goal-setting as described by the physios. They said that while some patients arrived knowing what they wanted to achieve, this was not the norm, with most patients struggling to identify goals. Many physios described the process of collaboration within goal identification to be challenging, and this created tension between a desire for meaningful goal identification and the time available.

‘In our own practice we still believe that setting goals by yourself is not something you can just […]..they can’t do it for the first time, they don’t even know what pulmonary rehab is, they don’t know what they gonna achieve’.  (Clint, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation)

‘You know time constraints and assessments as well, you just really want to get this goal and they’re going “oh I don’t know really’ (Tammy, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

Goal specificity In those cases when patients did have goals, a lack of specificity was a frequent issue. Patients were said to have general, non-specific ideas relating to broad improvements, rather than precise SMART-amenable goals.

‘I think it has to be a specific thing, I think that’s one of our big problems when they’re trying to set goals is making them specific or specific enough to be able to measure whether someone’s done it.’ (Penny, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

Another issue was the setting of ‘unrealistic’ goals. Some physios felt these could potentially demotivate patients and give them a negative experience of respiratory rehabilitation.

‘You know you’ve got to be realistic as well because […] if people don’t achieve stuff then they will actually become more disillusioned.  You want to give them wins, so they feel like, you know, they’ve actually done something good’ (Georgina, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

But other physios disagreed:

‘I don’t necessarily think it has to be realistic either […] I think sometimes you need to fail your goal to set realistic goals so I don’t think that, I think it’s wrong to give people false hope but I think if they have set an unrealistic target in their head unless they fail to achieve it then they’re not going to readjust, they’re not going to reset their goal because they’ve got something higher’ (Abbey, Band 7, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

Reviewing goals There was no consensus on reviewing goals. Some physios reported reviewing goals throughout the rehabilitation programme, but some did it only at the end, some not at all, and some only reviewed specific types of goals.

‘once we’ve managed to get something down on paper, keeping them motivated to actually see through that goal, […] we used to kind of review it half way and review it at the end and now we kind of probably every week we do a little five minutes at the end of, how we going with our goals, we give them sheets to take home so it’s pinned up, we have a copy, they have a copy’  (Penny, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

‘I must admit it’s not very formal our goal-setting and in the past certainly with [service name] it’s always been sort of at the back of their minds rather than the forefront.  Unfortunately, although we do identify [goals] there and then they’re generally not addressed throughout the programme. […]  I mean we do keep score sheets, its more objective […]  So obviously we’ve got good objective outcomes each time they come which we’re constantly reviewing.  But in terms of the more practical, functional goals they come up with themselves it’s not very well documented.’ (Richard, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

There was recognition that the patients’ and physios’ needs regarding goal setting reviews often differed.

‘Everything we do has to have a measurable difference, […] and I agree with that because I think that that’s absolutely important I  just don’t necessarily think that all the objective outcome measures that we use actually capture what we need to capture’ (Bernice, Band 8, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

‘I find it really difficult to make goals SMART […] like getting them to even measure how far they can walk now versus what they’d like to be able to do because it’s like so abstract, isn’t it? […] (Nat, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)


Theme 3 – Influences on collaborative goal-setting

Individual Influences  

Patient: general health, comorbidities, awareness of COPD, understanding of pulmonary rehabilitation, desire for change.

Physio: attitudes to goal-setting; prior experience of goal-setting; training (undergraduate/ postgraduate).

‘Goal-setting is a nightmare. [laughs] That’s how I would describe it! With some people, not with all. I think if you goal-set with someone like me, it’s really easy because I’m goal-orientated […] and I set goals with people both in pulmonary rehab and like things like my staff and oh my God, for some people […] it’s like getting blood out of a stone’. (Nat, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

 ‘I don’t do goals per se. I suppose I carry goals round in my head, but they’re probably more my goals for the patients rather than the patient orientated goals. Whereas I say, more junior staff tend then to write a problem list and a goal plan I would probably qualify that by saying maybe it’s just the difference in [..] university courses. You know, when I qualified 12 years ago, was that a priority? Whereas what’s being taught now, is more the goal perspective and the patient, you know, sort of collaborative working?’ (Kay, Band 8, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

Those who remembered undergraduate training featuring goal-setting, recalled being introduced to SMART principles, the use of short and long term goals, and thinking about problem lists and goals. However, even those who did receive training at university, were uncertain how goal-setting should be implemented.

‘well we’ve talked quite a lot about this [goal-setting] over the last few months, within our team. Basically it’s difficult at the moment because I think all of us do things differently and I don’t know whether… no one really knows really whether they’re doing it right or wrong, or what’. (Oliver, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

Organisational Influences

Time pressure: Giving time to patients in consultations was considered a desirable and important thing. Time was needed for patients to consider and understand their condition, to think about their condition-related questions, and to explore how rehabilitation could influence their lives. But available time for new patient assessments varied across pulmonary rehabilitation programmes, from about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

‘I think goal setting is quite a time consuming, energy draining kind of task and I think that if no one else in the team can kind of do it, very well, or avoids it shall we say, then it’s quite a draining thing for you to have to do.’ (Nat, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

‘I think it’s just the time thing again you’ve got to fit in the all your assessment, you’ve done the objective things, you spoke to them a lot during the subjective and then you start asking them about goals […] it opens up the floodgates sometimes doesn’t it?’ (Abbey, Band 7, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

The physios working in the community felt less time limited than those working in pulmonary rehabilitation. However, in the community, caseload challenges were more influential; acutely unwell patients would take priority over more stable patients who were consequently left to pursue their goals alone.  The need to prioritise patients according to severity was perceived as more pronounced in the acute medical setting; with a heavy caseload of sick people to manage, time spent with any one individual patient was noted as brief.  In these areas, goal-setting was seen as less collaborative and more based around acute needs and discharge.

‘I mean I don’t know that many people still do goals on, on the wards. I think mainly on the wards it’s more this is acute admission we’ve got to get you better and well enough to go home and goals aren’t necessarily thought about’ (Penny, Band 7, pulmonary rehabilitation and Community)

Financial cuts had left multidisciplinary PR programmes marginalised by the loss of professional input. So some physios described having little access to, or input from, other disciplines and felt this affected the time available for goal-setting. Physios felt unable to include every recommended component, or to do everything that might be considered ‘ideal’; collaborative goal-setting was one such component.

‘So, things are getting done at probably 60%, coz there’s only me, rather than a team of four of us you know, everybody getting 100% of their job […] There’s only so much one person can do really.’ (Kay, Band 8, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

‘I don’t have the luxury of time necessarily, so I’ll probably hone in on what I perceive as the important elements, so I don’t know whether I’m doing a, a, a token gesture at goal-setting to some extent. If, if it’s not simple to do, have I got the time to go back and revisit it on an individual basis with patients? Probably not’.  (Kay, Band 8, Acute and pulmonary rehabilitation)

Service needs  Rehabilitation services were seen as needing to justify their existence by providing evidence of short and long term improvements, not only to gain additional funding but just to maintain existing funding. Clinical outcomes demonstrating patient benefit were required by commissioners, and in this respect exercise goals could be seen as contributory. Service-oriented goals were often prioritised over more patient-oriented goals, which was challenging to the practice of collaborative goal-setting.

‘we use lots of outcomes, just as a service we’re always trying to prove that we’re worthwhile. That we’re worth spending all that money on, so we use lots of outcomes, and then a lot of the goals are built around those outcomes themselves’. (Richard, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)

‘how much does pulmonary rehab cost? Well not a lot so the investment is probably worthwhile and if you can demonstrate that to the commissioners surely that’s of benefit.  So there are other benefits of looking at how you set your goals in a wider setting.’ (Steve, Band 8, Acute)

Approaches used by physios to assist with goal-setting

  • Listening to the patient, to learn how their lives were affected by their condition and really mattered to them.

‘I think the process of getting in there, again, for me is to do with […] finding out what it is what  makes  that  patient  tick  so  what  it  is  that  is  high  on  their,   functionally  really  what  it  is  what  they  would  like  to  achieve’  (Danielle, Band 7, Community)

  • Prompting patients to think about what they wanted to achieve initially, before following this up in the second or third week of rehabilitation to agree any goals.

‘So we kind of tell them to be thinking about goals on the first day as well, on the assessment day […] goal setting used to be the 3rd week, but now we’ve moved it to the 2nd week’ (Clint, Band 7, Pulmonary Rehabilitation)

  • Using responses from a disease specific questionnaire, such as the Chronic Respiratory Questionnaire (CRQ) to help patients identify any things they could not do, but would like to.

‘If they can’t think of a goal, I then go on to say “well what are you having problems with?” if they can’t tell me then we get the CRQ out and say “well you’ve ticked that you can’t bend down and you’re struggling to get dressed, is that something you want to improve on?’ (Jackie, Band 7, Pulmonary Rehabilitation)

  • Dealing with unrealistic goals. Unless the goal was something completely unobtainable (like wanting a new pair of lungs), most physios used the strategy of breaking large, potentially unrealistic, goals down into smaller ones, rather than not working towards their patients’ goals at all, in an effort to keep their patients’ experiences of respiratory rehabilitation positive.

Some physios had issues with using a problem-focused approach to collaborative goal-setting because a) a patient’s reported problems did not always equate to a desirable goal from the patient’s perspective, or b) patients might not perceive themselves to have any particular difficulty.  The latter may have been because any relinquished or reduced activities had been given up gradually (due to the gradual onset of their COPD), or because they did not perceive COPD to have significantly affected their lifestyle.

‘Sometimes it is really hard to find a goal for people.  I’ve had quite a few patients who I actually haven’t been able to set and usually no matter how, which way you ask them you know to get a goal they just can’t come up with anything  and then you feel like you’re telling them goals to achieve, because then you say “well, what about if you can walk to the shops without stopping?” and they’re like “ok” but it might not be important to them they might not care that they have to stop 5 times, they might be so used to doing that be now that it doesn’t make a difference?’ (Tammy, Band 6, pulmonary rehabilitation)


Goal-setting in relation to COPD has been found to be challenging for respiratory physiotherapists, with emphasis on the difficulty surrounding goal identification, and clinical practices vary. There is considerable uncertainty as to how goal-setting should be approached and there are times when goal-setting is driven by service need, rather than patient values. This creates tension for clinicians who have to fulfil both patient needs and service needs. In addition to being given the time and resources necessary to undertake goal-setting, clinicians may also need additional training to help them resolve some of these issues. This work highlights a need for wider discussion to clarify the purpose and implementation of goal-setting in respiratory rehabilitation.

“Giving hope, ticking boxes or securing services? A qualitative study of respiratory physiotherapists’ views on goal-setting with people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” Clinical Rehabilitation. 2016. Epub ahead of print

Authors: Summers RH, Ballinger C, Nikoletou D, Garrod R, Bruton A, Leontowitsch M.

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New PhD studentship opportunity for 2017

PhD studentship. Come and work with me! Advert is now out. See here

The studentship is only open to UK/EU students, because the funding available is insufficient to cover international fees. Applicants will need a 2:1 degree or higher, and to have skills in a numerate discipline like engineering, ideally with signal processing skills and experience in use of Matlab.

The working title is Automated Analysis of Lung Sounds as a Predictor of Ventilator Associated Pneumonia.  This work is being funded jointly by the NIHR Southampton Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit and an asthma charity called AAIRYou will be supervised by Prof Anna Barney (Faculty of Engineering and the Environment (FEE)), Prof Mike Grocott (Faculty of Medicine), and me – Prof Anne Bruton (Faculty of Health Sciences). We are all three based at the University of Southampton and you will be registered with FEE for the duration of your PhD.

Some background for this PhD

I have blogged about lung sounds before. See here,  here and here.  Standard lung auscultation provides an assessment of airway patency and geometry, and parenchymal normality, but the information it gives is subjective and qualitative. Computer aided lung sound analysis (CALSA) removes the subjectivity and allows quantification of sounds and their characteristics (intensity, frequency) (Earis & Cheetham 2000). We hypothesise that information derived from CALSA will aid the early detection, diagnosis and monitoring of acquired pulmonary complications. Most research in this field has been conducted in controlled, laboratory environments using multiple sensors, but we have established that reliable lung sound data can be recorded with a single sensor in an outpatient clinical environment (Marques et al. 2009), and we have current PhD students who have successfully collected lung sound data from inpatient ward environments.

Acquired pulmonary complications (atelectasis, infection, pneumonia) are common in several patient groups, particularly in post-operative and intensive care populations. Mechanically ventilated patients are at high risk for developing nosocomial pneumonia or tracheobronchitis. In general, the frequency of infection increases with the duration of mechanical ventilation, but the risk appears to be greatest in the first week of intubation (Ahmed 2001). Ventilator acquired tracheobronchitis (VAT) represents an intermediate process between lower respiratory tract colonisation and ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), which is an important cause of morbidity and mortality with a significant economic impact on health care resources, despite advances in antimicrobial therapy and better supportive care (Rotstein et al. 2008). The incidence of VAP has been reported to range from 10% to 20% of intensive care unit patients (Rewa 2011). It is suggested that there is a short therapeutic window between the development of VAT and the progression to VAP, but one of the challenges to optimal management is having an early and accurate diagnosis, as delays in therapy are associated with increased mortality. Formal diagnosis of VAP usually comprises clinical signs and symptoms, microbiological data, and radiographic findings; but there is currently no consensus on diagnostic criteria for VAT (Craven et al. 2009).

Lung sound data are simple to collect (noninvasively at the bedside), using a digital stethoscope, and can provide data for quantitative and objective tracking of changes in respiratory health status. In this PhD, data from a cohort of ventilated patients in an intensive care setting would be collected. Data would be acquired at multiple time-points, from admission to discharge (or death) together with a clinical and pathological characterisation of the progression of any acquired pulmonary complications. Chest x-rays are routinely, and frequently, taken in the ICU environment for clinical need (e.g. checking placement of endo-tracheal and naso-gastric tubes, checking central line placement, monitoring clinical changes), so there will be opportunities to compare acoustic with radiological findings.

We plan to start initial clinical data collection in advance of the enrolment of the PhD student. The PhD student would be based in the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment and focus on acoustic analysis of lung sound recordings to establish and evaluate the usefulness of extracted acoustics features (energy, energy by frequency band, spectral tilt, temporal and spectral features of adventitious sounds such as wheezes and crackles, statistical features, cepstral analysis, MFCC and PLP-CC etc). These are all analysis methods that have been used effectively to characterise other kinds of audio, in particular speech recordings. Their use in pulmonary analysis is at an early stage due to slow embedding of the use of digital stethoscopes in clinical practice and the difficulty of establishing ground truth data for in vivo recordings. They have, however, shown promise as methods for analysing recordings from patients with cystic fibrosis (Marques et al 2012), bronchiectasis (Marques et al, 2009), COPD (Bennett et al, 2014), asthma and several other lung pathologies. Feature selection techniques will be used to identify the subset of acoustic features most sensitively predictive of VAP onset and progression for use in patient monitoring. These will then be incorporated into an automated system for identifying patients at risk of developing VAP in order to provide diagnostic support for clinical staff.

The PhD student will spend the first 9 months familiarising him/herself with the literature on lung sounds and their analysis, and establishing a set of acoustic features that can be extracted from the data sample and which have the potential to change with disease onset and progression. The next phase of the work from 9 to 18 months will be testing the statistical sensitivity of the features to known changes in patient respiratory health status to establish which should be selected as part of a predictive system. The final phase of the work will be a prospective study to test whether onset of VAP can be reliably predicted by the selected features, which will occur in parallel with thesis preparation.

Close-up of stethoscope on laptop keyboard


Ahmed QA, Niederman MS (2001) Respiratory infection in the chronically critically ill patient: ventilator-associated pneumonia and tracheobronchitis. 22(1) 72-85

Beck R et al. (2007) Computerized acoustic assessment of treatment efficacy of nebulized epinephrine and albuterol in RSV bronchiolitis. BMC Pediatr. 7:22

Bennett et al. (2015) The relationship between crackle characteristics and airway morphology in COPD. Respiratory Care. 60 (3): 412-421.

Craven DE et al. (2009) Ventilator-associated tracheobronchitis: the impact of targeted antibiotic therapy on patient outcomes.Chest135:521-8

Earis JE, Cheetham BMG (2000) Current methods used for computerized respiratory sound analysis. Eur Respir Rev 10:586-590.

Marques A et al. (2009) The reliability of lung crackle characteristics in cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis patients in a clinical setting. Physiological Measurement. 30:903-912

Marques et al. (2012) Are crackles and appropriate outcome measure for airway clearance therapy? Respiratory Care. 57(9), 1468-1475.

Murphy R.L. (2008) In defence of the stethoscope. Respir Care. 53(3):355-69

Rewa O, Muscedere J. (2011) Ventilator-associated pneumonia: update on etiology, prevention, and management. Curr Infect Dis Rep. 13(3):287-95

Rotstein C et al. (2008) Clinical practice guidelines for hospital-acquired pneumonia and ventilator-associated pneumonia in adults. Can J Infect Dis Med Microbiol. 19:19-53.


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Breathing exercises for adults with asthma

This is an early version of an invited paper I produced for Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (2015 53:126-9 doi:10.1136/dtb.2015.11.0361). The published version is very different!

Introduction Asthma is still amongst the commonest long-term conditions, it is incurable, and outcomes have stopped improving, despite clinicians’ best efforts using pharmacological approaches (Martinez & Vercelli, 2013). There is considerable public interest in the use of non-pharmacological approaches in the treatment of asthma, and particularly in the use of breathing exercises (Bruton & Thomas 2100). Surveys suggest many people with asthma use them, often without the knowledge of their clinical team. However, the phrase ‘breathing exercises’ is vague and encompasses many different techniques, only some of which have a convincing evidence base. The techniques with the strongest evidence base are those that aim to ‘retrain’ breathing pattern to encourage patients to breathe through the nose, to breathe more slowly and regularly, and to reduce upper thoracic movement. The role of breathing exercises within the management of asthma has been controversial, partly because early proponents made exaggerated, implausible claims of effectiveness. Recent evidence suggests that breathing retraining programmes are effective in improving patient-reported outcomes such as symptoms, quality of life and psychological impact; and may reduce the use of rescue bronchodilator medication. This has resulted in endorsement of breathing retraining as an add-on treatment in asthma in systematic reviews and guidelines. The guidance is only applicable to adults with asthma, as there is little paediatric evidence beyond anecdote. Despite the observed clinical benefits in adults with asthma, there is currently no convincing evidence that airways physiology, hyper-responsiveness or inflammation is affected by breathing exercises. The mechanism behind breathing retraining therefore remains uncertain, with both psychological and physiological theories proposed.

Background Breathing exercises for asthma can be broadly divided into four groups: exercises aimed at manipulating the pattern of breathing (breathing retraining), exercises aimed at increasing the strength and/or endurance of the respiratory muscles (inspiratory muscle training); exercises aimed at whole body conditioning (aerobic training); and exercises aimed at increasing the flexibility of the thoracic cage and improving posture (musculoskeletal training). Some individual techniques may address more than one of these group aims. Each group of exercises contains a range of approaches and rationales. In addition there are specific technologies/ equipment that can be used to provide biofeedback during exercises. The main focus in this article will be on techniques with the most convincing evidence base, which are the ones used in breathing retraining.

Breathing retraining exercises aimed at manipulating the pattern of breathing include: physiotherapy techniques (such as Papworth), yoga breathing techniques, Buteyko breathing techniques, and improving breath control through singing or musical instruments. Some of the issues with all breathing retraining trials are the lack of detail in the description of the techniques used, and the lack of uniformity in use of language (Bruton et al, 2011). In RCTs reported by Thomas et al (2003, 2009), and Holloway & West (2007) the phrase ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ is used.  In reality, in the absence of phrenic nerve malfunction, all breathing patterns involve diaphragmatic activity, so this phrase is not an accurate description, but has become synonymous with breathing with more movement from the abdomen than upper chest. One problem with the term diaphragmatic breathing is that it can be interpreted to mean ‘slow and deep’ or ‘normal rate and tidal volume’ breathing, depending on when and where you were trained (Bruton et al, 2011). Nevertheless, most breathing retraining packages include greater emphasis on abdominal and lower thoracic excursion during inspiration, with reduced emphasis on upper thoracic excursion. But this is only one element of the package. Breathing retraining is a complex intervention frequently comprising multiple components (both respiratory and non-respiratory). Respiratory components involve some form of breathing pattern manipulation, while non-respiratory components may include, for example, varying amounts of nutritional advice, medication usage advice, and psychological support to address the associated anxiety which can accompany asthma (Thomas et al, 2011).

Main body The evidence for breathing exercises other than breathing retraining is either weak or non-existent. Although musculoskeletal training to increase flexibility and improve posture in asthma has some strong clinical proponents, there is insufficient trial evidence to support their use. Specific named techniques such as the Alexander Technique (which is a form of therapy involving postural realignment and relaxation) have no trial evidence in asthma found to be suitable for inclusion in a recent Cochrane review(Dennis & Cates, 2012). Manual therapy techniques aimed at increasing the movement of the ribcage and spine to improve lung function also have insufficient evidence to support or refute their use for patients with asthma (Hondras et al, 2005). There has been recent interest in music therapy for asthma (both listening and playing), and there is some logic to the use of breath control techniques associated with singing, or playing a wind instrument, but there is again insufficient evidence to support its use (Sliwka et al, 2014). None of these breathing exercises/ techniques is recommended within current guidelines for asthma. There is, however, some evidence that inspiratory muscle training may have an effect. A recent Cochrane review included five studies involving a total of 113 adults (Silva et al 2013), although three of these were from a single research group. Inspiratory muscle strength generally increased significantly (as you would expect after resistance training for any skeletal muscle), but no clinical benefit (such as change in quality of life or breathlessness) was observed. The review concluded that there was currently no evidence to support or refute the use of inspiratory muscle training in asthma.

Physical training also has some positive evidence. One Cochrane review of physical training for asthma (Ram et al, 2005 ), based primarily on paediatric studies, concluded that while physical training improves cardiopulmonary fitness, it has no effect on resting lung function or number of days with wheeze. A systematic review (Pakhale et al, 2013) included 23 studies (total number of participants not documented). Although the authors stated that physical training might reduce airway inflammation in asthma, the review was essentially inconclusive. A more recent Cochrane review in 2013 concluded physical training showed significant improvement in maximum oxygen uptake, but no effects were observed in other measures of pulmonary function (Carson et al, 2013). However, the training was well tolerated and although physical training may have no specific asthma-related effects, the general benefits of physical training mean that some authors  recommend its use in asthma (Bott et al, 2009), even though they are not specific about dose/ duration/type of training to be used. The Cochrane review concluded: “People with stable asthma should be encouraged to participate in regular exercise training, without fear of symptom exacerbation” (Carson et al, 2013).

Breathing retraining The breathing retraining techniques most frequently investigated in research trials have been physiotherapist administered breathing exercises (Papworth and similar) (Holloway & West 2007; Laurino et al, 2012; Thomas et al, 2003, 2009) the Butekyo breathing method (Cooper et al, 2003; Cowie et al, 2008; Opat et al, 2000) and yogic breathing (Manocha et al, 2002; Singh et al, 2012; Singh et al, 1990). Although each has a different philosophical standpoint and rationale, there are considerable overlaps within their delivery methods. Of the three approaches, physiotherapy and Buteyko have the higher level of evidence and are now mentioned in BTS/SIGN guidelines for asthma management (British guideline on the management of asthma, 2014). Although some practitioners are applying these techniques clinically to children and teenagers, the only robust current research trial evidence applies to adults, with a recent Cochrane search for evidence in other age groups finding zero papers for inclusion in their review (Barker et al, 2013).

The general aims of breathing retraining are to ‘normalise’ breathing pattern, usually by adopting a slower respiratory rate with longer expiration and reduction in overall ventilation. Use of abdominal rather than the upper-chest and accessory muscles of ventilation in resting breathing, and nasal rather than mouth breathing, are also frequently stressed. The rationale for this retraining is based on the assumption that some people with asthma have abnormal or dysfunctional breathing patterns, either continuously or intermittently in association with bronchospasm. The evidence for this assumption is fairly weak, as few reliable studies have compared breathing patterns in people with asthma to healthy subjects, particularly at times of bronchoconstriction. People with asthma (even mild well controlled asthma) have been found on average to have a lower arterial and end-tidal carbon dioxide tension than matched non-asthmatic subjects, indicating a tendency to over-breathe (Osborne et al, 2000). There is also indirect evidence of dysfunctional breathing from UK surveys reporting 1/3 of women and 1/5 of men treated for asthma in general practice to have symptoms suggestive of hyperventilation (Thomas et al, 2001) and from Spain (Martinez-Moragon et al, 2005)reporting that 1/3 of asthma patients in a Spanish pulmonology clinic had such symptoms. Approximately 1/5 of patients attending UK difficult asthma clinics were found after detailed assessment to have functional breathing disorders (including dysfunctional breathing and vocal cord dysfunction) as a major factor in their illness (Heaney & Robinson, 2005).

Breathing retraining for asthma should be considered as a complex multicomponent behavioural change intervention involving both instructional and practice phases. In clinical practice, the instruction phase of the intervention is conventionally delivered individually via face-to-face methods between a patient and a therapist. Although some studies have used small group delivery, no direct comparisons have yet been trialled for group versus one-to-one delivery. Some trials have used alternative ‘distance’ delivery methods such as in an Australian study investigating the effects of two breathing training programmes delivered as a videotaped instruction programme (Slader et al, 2006). Both programmes were associated with improved health status and major reductions in bronchodilator use from baseline values. They have subsequently been made available as Internet downloads and used in Australia to improve asthma control in routine practice. The minimum length and number of instruction sessions required to achieve improvement is not known, and in clinical practice tends to be individualised according to the needs / learning speed of the patient. In our experience with physiotherapy breathing retraining, 3-4 instruction sessions spread over a period of about 6 weeks are effective. Patients are encouraged to put the various techniques into practice on a daily basis and to try to incorporate them into daily routines until they become ‘second nature’ and embedded into daily life. The ideal number and duration of practice sessions is also unknown, and as with the instruction sessions, is likely to vary between individuals.

Breathing retraining generally involves a ‘package’ of components. The Papworth (physiotherapy), Yoga, and Buteyko packages all have some core similarities, with breathing pattern modification being the primary component. Other common elements are advice on route of breathing, use of breath holding, relaxation and home exercises. The more variable elements across the packages are nutritional advice, medication usage advice, asthma education, aerobic exercise prescription, and use of biofeedback devices (such as use of capnometry, breathing rate, heart rate variability).

Evidence for breathing retraining in asthma One systematic review of breathing exercises in the treatment of asthma performed for the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found 22 studies (O’Connor et al, 2012). Although these were heterogeneous in terms of methodology, intervention and quality, the review found that hyperventilation reduction techniques achieved a medium to large reduction in symptoms and reduction in medication use (1.5-2.5 puffs of Beta2 agonist per day), although with no improvement in pulmonary function. Generally, improvements were seen in patient reported outcome measures, particularly quality of life, rescue medication requirement and symptoms, with lesser or absent improvements in physiological disease parameters. The review concluded that ‘Behavioral approaches that include hyperventilation reduction techniques can improve asthma symptoms or reduce reliever medication use over 6 to 12 months in adults with poorly controlled asthma, and have no known harmful effects.’  An updated Cochrane review in 2013 of ‘Breathing exercises for adults with asthma’ (Freitas et al, 2013) with more restrictive criteria considered 13 studies involving 906 participants. Again, considerable heterogeneity was found, but six of seven studies reporting symptom control showed significant improvements with breathing exercises. All eight studies that assessed quality of life reported an improvement in this outcome. Effects on lung function were more variable, with no difference reported in five of the eleven studies, while the other six showed a significant difference favouring breathing exercises. Meta-analysis was possible only for symptoms and quality of life, and showed a significant difference favouring breathing exercises for both parameters. Recent guidelines now incorporate recommendations that breathing retraining exercises should be considered in adult asthma, with the 2015 GINA iteration stating that ‘Breathing exercises may be a useful supplement to asthma pharmacotherapy’ (Grade B). The non-pharmacological management section of the BTS-SIGN UK Asthma Guideline (2014) gives grade A recommendation to the statement ‘Breathing exercise programmes (including physiotherapist-taught methods) can be offered to people with asthma as an adjuvant to pharmacological treatment to improve quality of life and to reduce symptoms’.

 Targeting – who benefits from breathing retraining? Asthma encompasses a variety of phenotypes, and different therapeutic approaches are effective in different patients (Anderson, 2008). At present, data from published trials suggest that those who would benefit most from breathing retraining are those with impaired quality of life (when assessed with a validated questionnaire such as the AQLQ) despite standard medication. Although intuitively one might think those with symptoms of hyperventilation would be more likely to benefit, in the largest trial to date no significant difference in response to training from those with higher hyperventilation symptom scores (evaluated using the Nijmegen questionnaire) or lower baseline carbon dioxide tension; similarly, anxiety and depression did not predict the response to treatment (Thomas et al, 2009).

Breathing retraining requires considerable commitment from the individual patient in terms of time and effort. It suits those who are happy to be involved with self-management but is unlikely to be effective in patients who prefer a ‘quick fix’, or who lack sufficient motivation to practice the techniques regularly. A problem for many clinicians and patients is accessing therapists who can provide this training, which can be problematic for many respiratory specialists, and even more so for community-based generalists. The cost-effectiveness of increasing access to respiratory physiotherapists or other suitable professionals has not been assessed. Currently many patients who are interested in this type of treatment can only access it by paying unregulated therapists or by self-help books, internet pages or You Tube films of unknown efficacy. We are currently investigating the clinical and cost-effectiveness of an interactive ‘digital’ audio-visual breathing training programme (which can be delivered by internet or DVD) compared to face-to-face programmes and usual care, in the BREATHE study (Bruton et al, 2013). Potentially, this could allow a method of allowing large numbers of people to access the treatment in a convenient and inexpensive way.

Conclusion Asthma is a complex, multi-faceted condition, and control is sub-optimal for most patients. There is now sufficient evidence to recommend breathing retraining as an adjunctive therapy for the management of asthma, provided it is delivered responsibly within the context of optimal medical care. It is unlikely that breathing retraining will affect the pathophysiology of asthma, although may improve symptoms, increase quality of life, and may reduce rescue bronchodilator use. For patients who are not achieving adequate control despite apparently adequate pharmacological treatment, informing them of the possibility of breathing retraining and referring them to an appropriate source of instruction would be in agreement with current evidence and guidelines. Access to trained therapists is an on-going issue, but future research may allow greater access to effective programmes delivered in other ways.


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Trial recruitment blues

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Academic Adventures in Amsterdam: my respiratory research team at the ERS

Amsterdam ERSAt the end of September some of the respiratory research team from the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Southampton attended the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Congress in Amsterdam. This is a huge conference, with over 22,000 delegates and a strong medical bias, but is an excellent forum for physiotherapists, nurses and others working in the respiratory field to disseminate their work and network with the great and the good. As an avid Tweeter I was busy during the 5-day conference and have Storyfied my conference experience here.

In this blogpost I am sharing a bit more detail about just one area of the work we presented. Two PhD students, Roxy Tehrany (now Dr Roxy – yay!) and Fatimah Al Sheikh, were presenting their research into breathing patterns. Roxy’s work was on breathing patterns created during different types of speech, while Fatimah was looking at the stability of breathing patterns within individuals over time.

This is one of Roxy’s posters comparing breathing patterns in healthy people and those with chronic respiratory disease.Roxy poster health vs disease

As physiotherapists we observe clinically that people with respiratory problems breathe ‘differently’ to healthy people, but this has rarely been quantified (partly because of the many difficulties that surround recording and analysing some elements of breathing pattern). We often note that people with respiratory problems breathe with more movement of their upper chest than healthy people – who tend to breathe more from the abdomen. Roxy’s work was using a tried and tested piece of equipment called Respiratory Inductive/ Inductance Plethysmography (RIP) to record chest wall and abdominal movements during breathing. She invited a group of 20 patients with chronic respiratory disease and a group of 20 age-matched healthy adults to have their breathing patterns recorded while breathing quietly and while speaking. She found that there were statistically significant differences in the way that the two groups breathed, but that this was not always as we had anticipated – for example the healthy group had greater movement from the chest than the respiratory disease group. This finding was consistent for both quiet breathing and during all three speaking tasks they were given (reading, conversation and counting). We have a few theories as to why we returned this result – one is that the band that goes around the chest during RIP is not able to distinguish between lower chest and upper chest movement, but conflates the two to give ‘generalised’ chest movements. Another possibility is that people with chronic respiratory disease have to work harder to breathe which may require more abdominal movement. However, this counter intuitive finding would need to be confirmed in a much larger sample before we can accept it as ‘real’.

Meanwhile, Fatimah was conducting experiments to test whether breathing patterns remained stable within individuals over time, and / or were affected by posture. She did this by inviting 46 healthy participants to attend for recording of their breathing patterns in sitting and lying (again using RIP) during four different recording sessions over a period of one week. This is the poster she presented at the ERS.

Fatimah poster ERS

Her analysis showed that both timing and regional components of breathing pattern gave ‘good’ test-retest reliability (using both relative and absolute estimates) in both positions, but that the sitting position gave the higher reliability estimates. This suggests that in healthy participants, breathing pattern is stable within individuals and that the sitting position may be preferable to the supine (lying) for taking repeated measurements over time. Stability is one of the characteristics that is desirable for any measurement to have if it is to be useful as an outcome measure. Another characteristic of a useful outcome measure is that it should be responsive to change. For example, height (in adults) is a fairly stable measurement – but unlikely to show much change in response to any intervention. If you were testing the effects of a new diet, you might use your weight to assess the outcome, but you would not use height.

Roxy wanted to do some further work to explore whether breathing patterns had any value as an outcome measure for physiotherapy interventions. Before setting up a randomised controlled trial we wanted to try and get some ‘proof of principle’ data to see if breathing patterns were responsive to change. We considered two physiotherapy related interventions that we thought might induce change in breathing pattern 1) breathing retraining and 2) pulmonary rehabilitation. We are currently conducting a small study measuring patterns before and after breathing retraining, but Roxy has now completed a small study measuring patterns before and after pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) – which she presented at the ERS Congress. This is the poster.

Roxy poster pre post PR2She measured breathing patterns in 20 patients with chronic respiratory disease (14 with COPD, 6 with bronchiectasis) before and after a 6-week out-patient pulmonary rehabilitation programme. We saw no changes in any of the parameters of breathing pattern (timing, volume, regional contribution) that we analysed before and after PR. Some possible reasons for this are:

  • Breathing pattern parameters are not very responsive to change
  • The PR programme that we studied lacked sufficient intensity to induce a change in breathing
  • This sample of patients had no ‘room for improvement’ in their resting breathing patterns – for example, their baseline breathlessness (assessed using Borg scores) was already very low

So, as is very common in research, we now have more questions than answers – but we plough on! We have recently welcomed a new physiotherapy PhD student (Panos Sakkatos) who holds the first ever joint Wessex Medical Trust/ British Lung Foundation scholarship to permit him to study the usefulness of breathing patterns as an outcome measure over the next four years. So he will build on what we know already, and take it forwards.

breathe in

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Waiting for death

Death inevitably comes to every living thing, but we rarely talk much about it, or share our feelings about it. I have seen many deaths, but it is still a massive mystery to me. I am writing this as I wait for death to come into my house. During my life, as well as seeing many patients die in clinical environments, I have also had to bear the much more personal deaths of my brother and both my parents. Today will bring a much ‘lesser’ death in the eyes of most – a 3 month old chicken, known on Twitter as Moxie the MiniChick – one of 12 hatched under a pet hen called Speckles. Her first brood, and all 12 hatched and survived – which apparently is an incredibly rare feat.


MiniChick was absolutely fine for the first couple of weeks, but then became listless and unwell, and my farming friends helpfully offered a dispatching service. I chose to ignore them and fed MiniChick by hand for a few days.


Amazingly there was a seemingly full recovery, and for the last couple of months MiniChick has thrived and although small (possibly with bantam genes) has feathered up like the others, and seemed to be ‘out of the woods’ and set for a normal life.


But about 3 days ago Moxie was taken ‘unwell’ – all sick chickens (from whatever cause) have a characteristic look i.e. standing alone looking droopy and hunched. So I put MiniChick into a separate hutch on the grass, and offered tasty treats and water at regular intervals. There has been a slow but persistent downwards progression towards death. A proper farming person would have ended it by now, but I am way too soft for that. So as I write I have a small dying bird in my kitchen, and inevitably this reminds me of all the other deaths I have seen.

Some deaths are so sudden and unexpected they leave you shocked and bewildered by their unfairness. Others are much slower, and it is these slower ones that I find hardest to bear. Watching another life gradually ebb away is impossibly sad. Even though I know this moment is not about me, I have the selfish wish that death would come quickly, because that would be easier for me. I have this awful inner emotional conflict of dreading the loss and pain to come, while wishing desperately for it to be all over as fast as possible, which leads to nagging guilt at being so selfish. Death is exhausting for the living.








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