Evaluation of early airway disease in smokers: cost effectiveness of pulmonary function testing

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We studied 73 young adults who were presently cigarette smokers to evaluate whether the identification of abnormalities in pulmonary function tests had a detectable influence on modification of smoking habits. Utilizing rate schedules for these tests presently applicable in Rochester, New York, we determined the potential cost to these subjects and community relative to the number of subjects who stopped smoking as a result of test findings. Subjects were evaluated by questionnaire and function testing including spirometry, flow-volume curves, body plethysmography and single breath nitrogen washout test (SBN2). Functional abnormalities were present in 75% of subjects screened. The SBN2 test was most sensitive, identifying 97% of subjects with any abnormality. The presence of common respiratory symptoms was found to be highly predictive of test abnormalities. Subjects were informed of results and counseled. At six-month follow-up, 7% of subjects with abnormal test results had stopped smoking. Utilizing even our most cost-effective test, the SBN2, it would cost $1,392 for each “benefit” defined as one subject not smoking for six months. Application of these screening techniques is unlikely to be effective in altering smoking habits in the absence of continued physician support.

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