Many patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma do not know how to use inhaler devices to deliver life-saving medicines when they are gasping for air. Many of these patients end up in the hospital when their symptoms get out of control.

Findings of a new study, however, suggest that the fix for such medical emergencies and additional health care expenses may be as simple as setting aside more time to teach patients how inhaler devices work, whose risk for misuse is greater when patients switch devices.

In a new study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society on Monday, researchers randomly assigned a group of patients with COPD and asthma to receive personalized and hands-on instruction on how to use new inhalers while they were in the hospital.

They found that 91 percent of the patients who were given instructions on how inhalers work eventually used the devices correctly while only 40 percent of those who did not receive the instructions operated their inhalers properly.

A month after leaving the hospital, only 17 percent of the patients who were given instructions suffered from acute flare-ups while 36 percent of those who were not given extra instruction had acute flare-ups during the period.

Study author Valerie Press, from the University of Chicago, cited the importance of providing inhaler teaching to patients.

"The vast majority of patients do not get inhaler teaching in the hospital setting, especially for rescue devices," Press said. "Without good control, patients are at risk for more breathing attacks, and possibly even more emergency room visits or hospitalizations."

The vulnerable patients with low health literacy who had more difficulty understanding their health conditions appeared to benefit the most from getting the extra education.

In this group of patients with low health literacy, only 15 percent of those who received the extra instruction suffered from an acute symptom flare-up a month after leaving the hospital. Seventy percent of those who did not get extra education had acute symptom flare ups.

"Inpatient treatment-to-goal education may be an important first step toward improving self-management and health outcomes for hospitalized patients with asthma or COPD, especially among patients with lower levels of health literacy," the researchers wrote in their study.

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