Retired nurse breathes easily after study finds she was misdiagnosed with asthma

March 23, 2017

Becky Hollingsworth was one of 613 Canadians who took part in a study that found one third of adults recently diagnosed with asthma do not have it.

Thanks to a random phone call, Becky Hollingsworth got to be part of a study that found she did not have asthma after all.

“It was a fluke that I got in,” she said. “I’m an old nurse, and I’m a great believer in clinical trials.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, the retired community health nurse caught a bug that turned into pneumonia. After the initial infection, she found she was still short of breath. Her family doctor diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed oral medication and inhalers.

Even so, Hollingsworth never really believed she had asthma, and the year-long study confirmed it. It’s likely her symptoms were a temporary breathing problem left over from the pneumonia.

“I was delighted that we could verify that I did not have asthma,” said the 72-year-old. “Even if it’s falsely diagnosed, you still have to deal with the consequences of having a chronic illness. You have to take medication, and if you want to take a trip somewhere the insurance can be higher.”

It’s likely she was misdiagnosed because her doctor did not order the spirometry breathing test needed to confirm an asthma diagnosis.

“Doctors wouldn’t diagnose diabetes without checking blood sugar levels, or a broken bone without ordering an x-ray,” said Dr. Shawn Aaron, who is the lead author of the study, a senior scientist and respirologist at The Ottawa Hospital, and a professor at the University of Ottawa. “But for some reason many doctors are not ordering the spirometry tests that can definitely diagnose asthma.”

The study, which made headlines around the world, found that almost half the time, physicians did not order these tests. It also found that one third of adults recently diagnosed with asthma did not actually have it.

Dr. Aaron advises anyone who thinks they may have been misdiagnosed to ask their doctor for a spirometry test.

“Asthma can be deadly, so patients should never go off their medication without speaking to a doctor first,” he said.

Hollingsworth said she has no ill will for the doctor who originally diagnosed her.

“No doctor wants to misdiagnose, so this is a chance to educate general practitioners about spirometry,” she said.

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