Geographical variation in asthma mortality rates within the United Kingdom could be a reflection of variability in effectiveness of medical care services, or epidemiological variation. In order to ascertain whether differing hospital admission processes could contribute to this variation, asthmatic patients admitted from two districts, experiencing above and below average mortality rates were compared. The present study was part of a cohort study of 1,200 consecutive acute adult admissions in 1987/88. In the main study, social data and information on referral were collected by interview for all patients. The admitting doctors' perception of the patient's severity was assessed on the basis of the severity of symptoms, and likelihood of morbidity or mortality if the patient was not admitted. Further information on asthmatic patients (treatment and physiological measurements) was retrieved from the notes. Sixty-six asthmatic patients resident in Wandsworth (a district with high asthma mortality rates) were admitted to St George's Hospital or St James' Hospital (WW) and 31 patients resident in East Surrey (ES) (a district with low asthma mortality rates) were admitted to the East Surrey Hospital (ESH). Notes were obtained on 55 (83%) and 27 (87%) of patients in the two districts, respectively. WW received significantly more patients by self-referral: 68% of patients called an ambulance or came directly to casualty compared with 30% in ES (chi-squared = 13.7, d.f. = 2, P = < 0.001). There was a tendency for more admissions to ESH to be taking oral steroids (chi-squared = 3.2, d.f. = 1, P = 0.07). Patients admitted in WW tended to have more severe disease: 39 (85%) of patients admitted to WW had peak expiratory flow less than 200 1/minute on admission compared to 14 (58%) in ES (chi-squared = 6, d.f. = 1, P = 0.01). In WW the mean first recorded peak expiratory flow on admission was 154 1/minute compared to 172 1/minute in ES; their mean peak flow on discharge was 318 1/minute compared with 377 1/minute in ES. Twenty-one (38%) of admissions in WW were considered to be very urgent by the admitting hospital doctor compared to four (15%) in ESH (chi-squared = 4.67, d.f. = 1, P = 0.03). This opportunistic study found that, in an area experiencing high mortality rates, more patients with severe disease were admitted to hospital compared to a low mortality area. This does not appear to be due to differing hospital practices but rather to increased levels of morbidity in the community. As patients with more severe asthma are at a greater risk of dying, these finding reinforce the need to standardize asthma treatment in the community.
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