How Individuals With COPD Can Become More Empowered About Their Health

Living with COPD? Here’s how to make the most of every health care appointment.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects more than 2 million Canadians, and includes diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These are the most common lung diseases, and adults with COPD often have both. It makes breathing—and every day activities—extremely challenging and severely impacts quality of life.

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with your health care provider about your symptoms (which may include shortness of breath, chronic coughing, increased mucus or phlegm) and how you’re managing the disease.

“Your health care provider gets to know you over time and understands how you manage your health every day,” says Loretta McCormick, RN (EC), PhD. “Little changes in your health are more easily identified, managed and checked on if there are regular appointments and ongoing dialogue with providers.”

Your doctor may prescribe certain COPD medications to help prevent and lessen the severity of symptoms. These regular assessments, even when you are stable and well, are essential for managing your COPD and can help prevent issues from occurring.

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When to see your health care provider

If you experience worsening shortness of breath, increased phlegm or mucus production, or a change in mucus colour, you may be experiencing a COPD exacerbation or ‘flare-up.’ These symptoms should never be ignored. Make an appointment to address them with your health care provider as soon as possible.

Flare-ups or COPD exacerbations can cause lung function to decline faster over time, says McCormick, who reviews with her patients all of the services and strategies available to help them, including immunizations, washing hands, staying away from people when they are ill, kicking cigarettes to the curb and movement on a regular basis.

Other symptoms such as decreasing activity should lead to you getting assessed. Be sure to mention any changes to your overall health including sleep, energy level, and whether you feel your COPD symptoms are preventing you from doing any usual activities.

In addition, you should schedule an appointment with your health care provider if you are recently discharged from a hospital, need a refill of an inhaler or would like to review inhaler technique, says McCormick. (You can also go over technique with your pharmacist).  Of course, sudden changes in symptoms, like chest pain, require acute assessment in the emergency room.

With recent advances in treatment, it is possible for people with COPD to lead a more normal life and experience the joys that others without COPD experience. Whether you’re newly diagnosed or you’ve been living with COPD for years, you should expect to feel better and do more with effective management and regular assessments by your doctor.

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Options for seeing your doctor: virtual or in-person

Many health care providers offer both in-person and virtual appointments. In partnership with your health care provider, you can determine which format is best for you. It also depends on the nature of your consultation. While a virtual consult is convenient and many people living with COPD are glad to have it as an option, it doesn’t allow for a physical assessment. An in-person visit gives care providers a chance to assess people, observe them speaking, moving and allows for more interaction. Your health care provider will also be able to do a complete physical assessment as needed such as auscultate lungs, check oxygen saturations and check feet for swelling, says McCormick.

Seeing your health care provider in person, also provides the opportunity to brush up on inhaler technique. McCormick says that anytime she prescribes a new inhaler for a patient, she shows them proper technique with a demonstrator inhaler, which is an inhaler device that patients can work with in the office to get familiar with but doesn’t contain any drug. “Using the inhaler correctly can assist people living with COPD to be certain they are getting the drug as it was designed and this should help symptoms be managed more easily,” says McCormick.

Create a written plan of action

“Action Plans are a tool in the toolbox of care options for those diagnosed with COPD,” says McCormick. “A written plan of action can include a prescription for medication and directions for seeking healthcare.”

In the event of a flare-up or COPD exacerbation, the individual should implement the Action Plan and then follow-up with their health care provider to let them know when the plan was implemented so that their health care provider can check in on them. “This can be reassuring to the individual but also helps me as the care provider to monitor their response to treatment and determine if we have to make any changes to the plan,” says McCormick.

How to get the most out of your appointment

Be sure to tell your doctor how you are feeling, what you are able and not able to do, and update them on any changes in your condition since your last appointment. “Everything is relevant,” says McCormick. “Understanding how your health affects your everyday life is very helpful for your healthcare provider to determine how to help you live a wonderful life.”

You may want to keep a daily log of your symptoms and how you’re feeling. This can help identify if your condition is getting worse over time. McCormick suggests writing your questions down ahead of time so you don’t forget to mention anything during the appointment.

To ensure you’re getting the most out of your appointment with your health care provider, prepare in advance and ask questions that relate to your individual healthcare needs, says McCormick. For example, if you’ve received a new medication, you may want to ask: ‘How do I know it’s working?’ ‘How does the inhaler work?’ How do I know when it’s empty?’ Or, your questions could be related to a new service such as home care PSW support. For example, ‘How do I get help in my house to keep me safe while showering?’

You should also have medications on hand so you can refer by name to the drugs or inhalers you’re taking. “Try not to identify inhalers by their colour or shape, especially when on a phone visit,” says McCormick.

“Also, if you have implemented your action plan, write the date on a calendar or in the notebook so that you can tell your care provider what day you implemented the plan and if it worked,” says McCormick. “If there is something you don’t like with a new medication, write that down too so that you can review the details with your health care provider and either change medication or manage the issue.”

Bring a notebook to write down instructions and homework. It may also be helpful to bring someone with you because they can take notes and the two of you can review the appointment details and follow-up instructions once you leave the office.

“Preparation for an appointment is so helpful,” says McCormick. “Your healthcare provider will ask you questions every visit, too, so that should prompt a discussion of how you are doing.”

The more informed you are about COPD, the better you’ll be able to manage your condition and lead a more satisfying life. Speak to your doctor to learn more about the best treatment options for your COPD. Visit for more information.