Background — There is limited knowledge on what proportions of patients with COPD receive ambulatory care from primary care physicians, pulmonologists, or other specialists. We evaluated the types and combinations of physicians that provide ambulatory care to patients with COPD.
Methods — We conducted a population-based cross-sectional study using health administrative datasets from Ontario, Canada between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015. Individuals age 35 years and older with physician-diagnosed COPD were identified, using a previously validated COPD case definition. The primary outcomes were ambulatory visits to primary care physicians, pulmonologists, and all other specialists within a 1-year period.
Results — There were 895,155 individuals identified as having physician-diagnosed COPD. Of those, 56,533 (6.3%) individuals had no ambulatory care visits, 802,327 (89.6%) saw primary care physicians, and 95,782 (10.7%) consulted pulmonologists. By comparison, 736,496 (82.3%) saw other specialists, and 218,997 (24.5%) saw cardiologists. There were 32,473 (3.6%) individuals who underwent COPD-related hospitalizations. Of those in the subcohort with one hospitalization, about 30.0% saw pulmonologists; 43.7% of those who underwent two or more hospitalizations saw pulmonologists, and 9.9% with no hospitalization consulted pulmonologists.
Conclusions — Primary care physicians play a substantial role in caring for patients with COPD. But only one-half as many patients with COPD saw pulmonologists than cardiologists, suggesting that COPD may receive less specialty care compared with other chronic medical conditions. This information can help inform COPD care strategies to improve COPD care and minimize exacerbations and associated health-care costs. It also suggests a need for more research to provide guidance on when patients with COPD should be referred to pulmonologists.