Thomas L. Petty, M.D.

Professor of Medicine, 
University of Colorado

Chairman, National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP)

Our Capacity is Vital

April 2001
Second Wind
Lomita, California

  The spirometer, which measures lung function, was introduced into medicine by a surgeon in 1846 in London, England. The inventor, John Hutchinson, coined the term vital capacity. He realized that a low vital capacity was predictive of early deaths from many causes. In his era, the main lung disease causing death was tuberculosis.

How sad it is that the spirometer today is still not widely used in all primary care physicians' offices. The reasons for this lack of widespread use of an instrument which is critical in diagnosing and monitoring COPD, asthma, scarring lung diseases, and other less common abnormalities, is because of the mystique surrounding spirometry, and instrument costs, which historically have been from $3,000 to $5,000, or even more. But since the launch of the National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP), two companies have already introduced new sophisticated, but far less expensive spirometers that are accurate and very easy to use. Just today, another manufacturer demonstrated a simple handheld device which probably could be marketed in pharmacies for well under $100, and maybe a low as $50. Thus, there no longer will be financial limitations to the widespread use of spirometry. Indeed, most patients with lung diseases will have their own spirometer, just like many people have their own oxygen-measuring devices, known as oximeters.

  These technological advances have made simple spirometry available for widespread use. We need to get past the barriers that spirometer is in any way mysterious, painful, or dangerous. We need to let everyone know that spirometry is the only way of identifying early stages of COPD and related disorders, including asthma and some of the scarring lung diseases. "Spirometry for All", should be our motto.

  I will be in touch next month.

  Your friend,

  Thomas Petty, MD

Published: Jan 31 2002