The nonspecific nature of the symptoms of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) especially in early stages, and the relative rarity of IPF compared with other conditions that have similar symptoms, may contribute to a delay in diagnosis in the primary care setting, wrote Daniel F. Dilling, MD, of Loyola University Chicago, Maywood, Ill., and colleagues in Chest: Clinical Perspectives (Dilling et al.. Chest. 2022).
“We have learned over and over again through research, and also through talking with our own patients with IPF, that there is often a long lag between the first signs of the disease and a diagnosis of IPF,” corresponding author Dr. Dilling said in an interview.
“Even some pulmonary specialists can be uncertain about how to approach the diagnosis when a CT scan or other test first suggests the possibility; this can cost a patient precious time, as being on drug therapy earlier can result in preservation of lung function,” he said. “By sounding the alarm bell with this paper, we hope to promote awareness and education/training within the primary care community as well as the pulmonary community, and also to make all of them aware of the possibility of referral to specialty ILD [interstitial lung disease] centers when desired and possible,” he added.
The researchers conducted a pair of online surveys to inform the development of improving education on IPF among primary care providers.
In the, which can be accessed online, the authors reported results of the surveys. One included 100 general pulmonologists and the other included 306 primary care physicians (156 practiced family physicians and 150 practiced general internal medicine). The data were collected between April 11, 2022, and May 16, 2022. Participants were asked to respond to a patient case scenario of a 55-year-old woman with nonspecific symptoms such as shortness of breath on moderate exertion, cough, exhaustion, and trouble sleeping.
The PCPs were most likely to evaluate the patient for a cardiac condition (46%), 25% would evaluate for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and 23% for asthma. More than half (58%) ranked progressive fibrosing ILD as one of their bottom two diagnoses.
A total of 87% of PCPs said they would begin a diagnostic workup to evaluate symptoms if the patient had no preexisting respiratory disease, compared with 61% for patients with a respiratory diagnosis.
Although 93% of PCPs cited a chest x-ray as part of the initial patient workup, fewer than half said they would order an echocardiogram, spirometry, or pulmonary function test (PFT), and 11% said they would include diffusion capacity testing in the initial workup.
In addition, PCPs were less likely to ask patients about issues that might prompt an IPF diagnosis, such as exposures to agents through work, hobbies, the environment, or comorbidities.
In the pulmonology survey, more than 75% of respondents cited patient history, high-resolution tomography scan, serologic testing, and review for autoimmune disease symptoms as first steps in a diagnostic response to patients with suspected IPF.