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Penny for your thoughts

New Chief Executive Dr Penny Woods talks about where she hopes to take the BLF.

When and why did you first become interested in respiratory disease?

My mother had asthma. It was relatively well controlled but when she developed motor neurone disease, she also had pneumonia several times. It was like watching someone drowning – just horrible.

Also, my aunt smoked heavily and developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It was awful to witness the effects of the chronic cough and continuous chest infections and breathlessness.

Many years ago, as a casualty officer in a big London hospital, I saw a lot of people with severe asthma or worsening symptoms of COPD. It made me realise how huge the burden of lung disease is.

Even with very treatable diseases, such as asthma, there were so many people in whom it wasn’t well controlled. The picture really wasn’t good. So I decided to do what I could to make it better.

What are the challenges for the BLF and people with lung disease?

One person in five is affected by lung disease and it is the third most common cause of death in the UK. That it is not covered by the four strategic clinical networks (SCNs), due to be set up in 2013 in England, is completely inexplicable.

We’re campaigning really hard to put that right, with fantastic support from some of our Breathe Easy groups, who have been writing to MPs, the Department of Health, the NHS Commissioning Board and so on.I’d be hugely grateful if they could continue to do that. The ministers Jeremy Hunt, Anna Soubry, Daniel Poulter, Norman Lamb, their local MPs, and Sir David Nicholson and Sir Bruce Keogh on the NHS Commissioning Board – just bombard them all with letters.

Across the UK, a lot of people with lung disease – especially smokers – think it’s partly their own fault and don’t seek help. The BLF is very much anti-smoking for the harm it does – but it is not anti-smokers. Smokers have a right to be heard and I want to make sure that they are.

There are very few GPs with a specialist interest in respiratory disease and people with lung disease don’t have enough access to support services. Whether that’s because they don’t know what’s on offer, or because we or their health care professionals aren’t communicating properly, they’re neglected. Clearly, we need to make their voices heard.

Where next for the BLF?

We support all people with lung disease and will continue to do so. But, with finite resources, we have to think about which diseases and services we should be focusing on, and about what patients value most. Along with other BLF staff, I’ll be attending networking days and other events to meet as many patients and health care professionals as possible, to get their views on what we should be doing.

With the NHS in upheaval, my gut instinct is that the need for organisations such as the BLF to provide services and support is only going to grow. The charity will continue to provide support and advice, campaign for better services and fund research. Proportionally, how much we spend on each may change. But my overall aim is to make the organisation much bigger and more effective with, however hard it is, a much larger purse.

In five years’ time, if we’re spending more on patient services, that doesn’t mean we’ll be spending less, for example, on research than we are at present.

Do you fear for the NHS?

I fear it fragmenting and breaking down. I fear reaching old age and not having its safety net to fall back on. I spend a lot of time talking to health care professionals, health care managers, politicians, administrators and civil servants at the Department of Health. They share the same fears.

If even one person in a senior position, not a politician, could give assurances that the current reforms are absolutely the right thing to do, and explain why, it would make everybody feel a lot better. But there is no clarity over why this is being done.

What more can the BLF do to improve care and choice for people with lung disease?

So many things, but the question is: where is the most benefit going to be realised? My instinct is that we can do more in terms of direct patient support, and provide more training and education for people with lung disease and their families, friends and carers, and health care professionals too.

For example, fewer than half of GPs and specialist respiratory nurses know the correct inhaler technique. We can work to improve that. We can also do more to identify the missing millions with lung disease.

We also have to be better at working with other organisations with similar objectives to us, such as Asthma UK and the British Thoracic Society, the membership organisation for respiratory health care professionals. Are there things we could be doing better together, rather than apart?

What is your message to BLF supporters?

They are why we do what we do, the core of everything the BLF stands for. When we campaign, we do it for them. When we fund research projects, we do it to improve the lives of people with lung disease. We want to hear more from them about what they value from us, what they want from us and what we can do better. While I’m in post, they will remain the reason for the BLF being here

Your typical day is….?

Never typical. I spent the first weekend at the European Respiratory Society, meeting lots of health care professionals and pharmaceutical companies who support us. I’ve met lovely patients, volunteers, Breathe Easy chair people and BLF staff, chaired big meetings around mesothelioma or asthma with a variety of people.

So I’m spending a lot of time talking to people and getting to know the new world I’m in. It’s a steep learning curve. But I’m really happy to be here.

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7 November 2012