Care Coordinator

The 8 Stages of the COPD Patient Journey, Explained

Perhaps no other condition in the medical books has burdened hospitals more than Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The progression of COPD can vary from person to person and depends on various factors such as age, smoking history, and exposure to other lung irritants. In general, it is a slow and gradual process that takes many years to develop, and the rate of progression can be different for each individual. However, if left untreated or if the individual continues to smoke or be exposed to irritants, the disease can progress more rapidly. It is essential to receive appropriate treatment and make lifestyle changes to manage the disease and slow down its progression.

As it’s a chronic condition, hospitalization and care treatment costs can add up very quickly if the situation is not brought under control and maintained at a manageable level. It’s also a major hassle for the patient, to first seek optimal care while getting accustomed to the condition, and then possibly deal with it for the rest of their lives, such is the nature of such chronic conditions. The one thing that screams out loud from this whole ordeal is that a long-term care relationship must be developed between the provider and the patient. Hospital economics back up the need for such bonding as illustrated below vis a vis three perspectives.

If we adopt a revenue-centric approach, COPD cases will exhaust hospital resources, thus blocking the capacity to treat more profitable acute care cases. From a marketing point of view, the hospital won’t even get to reach new portfolios of patients, thereby foregoing its chance to build or market its expertise in other areas. If we adopt a cost-centric approach, COPD treatment is pricey. Hospitalizations and inpatient treatments are always expensive, and having a steady diet of just COPD cases, a condition notorious for lengthy average stays, and high readmission rates are not ideal. The outcome-centric approach is directly tied to the cost-centric approach, whereby improving the outcome of the patients, one can also reduce costs. But COPD is such a condition where improving the outcome consists of lifestyle changes, continuous monitoring to prevent flare-ups, and also necessary virtual action plans once there are flare-ups. Thus, its seen more as a commitment to a patient, and not merely the performance of service.

The above scenarios prove that whatever angle you approach COPD from, the goal should be to quickly and effectively treat the patient, but then to also maintain a relationship with them. If this is not done properly, the hospital will take a hit on all three fronts of revenue, costs, and of course outcome, as chronic diseases like COPD can be quite pestilent. To reduce symptoms may take a lifelong commitment of engagement, where the provider and patient are both proactive in keeping the symptoms stable, and hopefully restoring them back to pre-diagnosis levels (though this is very rare).

The COPD Patient Journey

The journey of a COPD patient typically involves periods of exacerbation, during which the patient experiences a worsening of their symptoms due to factors such as inflammation, hypoxia, inactivity, and treatment with glucocorticosteroids. These exacerbations can lead to irreversible damage and a decline in the patient’s overall condition. The patient may also experience other challenges related to managing their condition, such as difficulty breathing, fatigue, and limitations in daily activities. Effective management typically involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and support from healthcare professionals.

It’s important then to devise a patient journey map when it comes to COPD treatment. A patient journey map depicts the average patient’s experience of a condition, from the onset of symptoms, to diagnosis, and finally treatment that ends in some form of resolution. The objective is now for hospitals to figure out where they can add value in this continuum of care, from early awareness, to admission, to discharge, to discharge post monitoring.

We’ve looked at two patient journey maps, courtesy of idea illustration agency Fuselight, and an academic paper detailing the point of view of the COPD patient, to come up with our own comprehensive patient care journey. This type of insight using the patient as the focal point is very important to understanding the future of COPD. Care models have already begun to shift, with more focus on accountability. Thus , the question should be the following: Do I have enough understanding of every patient from the first point of contact, to understand if I can 1) Correctly diagnose COPD 2) Prevent exacerbation 3) Ensure effective implementation of care plan?

Both qualitative and quantitative studies should be conducted to describe the typical COPD patient’s journey through the healthcare system and all of the obstacles they face. But here is our understanding of the aforementioned resources. Operation specialists and care management executives should scrutinize this workflow, so it can be streamlined. Though, just a word of caution, there is such thing called specialized cases which deviate from the normal, and which require a unique mix of treatments. But apart from such cases, any business always looks to optimize the care process. Doing so curbs costs and increases efficiency, ensuring that the business can continue existing and serving the cause in question, which in this case is the effective treatment of COPD. At the rate at which hospitals are closing or are being consolidated, process matters. So without wasting any more words, here is our patient journey for COPD. It’s presented in a textual format. In the future, a pictoral version of this article will be uploaded.

Stage 1: Symptom Onset

It all begins with a chronic cough. At this stage, the future patient is not yet thinking about going to the doctor. The top three symptoms are a cough (with or without mucus), mucus clearance of the lungs and shortness of breath. As these symptoms exacerbate, the patient is forced into making a doctor’s appointment. Education and awareness building about early symptom detection would be a great addition to the process at this stage. Rather than wait for the first major lung attack, it is better to enroll earlier in a COPD program to prevent exacerbation while there is still a chance.

Stage 2: First HCP Visit

In the patient’s first visit to a healthcare provider, the mentioned symptoms will alert most primary physicians to the possibility of COPD, asthma, or other respiratory related diseases. An FEV (Forced Expiratory Volume) and/or a chest x-ray may be conducted. Depending on these results, a COPD diagnosis might me immediate. If not, the patient enters into step 3.

Stage 3: Awaiting Confirmation

Some potential wait time may be faced at this stage. The patient will share news about undergoing the diagnostic tests with friends and family, and seek more information online and in other channels about the procedures faced and the likelihood of a positive diagnosis. There is an opportunity at this stage to direct more information to the patient, about the future steps. There is a lot of uncertainty in the minds of the patients, and it could be a good time to calm their nerves and explain the road that lies ahead for them.

Stage 4: Confirmation of Diagnosis

A specialist, usually a pulmonologist, might be consulted at this stage to confirm the diagnosis. There is also the chance of misdiagnosis, in which case the patient will wrongly continue on this path before the correct diagnosis can be confirmed. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the patient will talk to physicians either in office or online via telehealth about the significance of the test results. If not satisfied with the counsel, they will go online to seek answers. Again, as with stage 3, there is an opportunity here for more education. It may be a good idea to talk with the patients about the dangers of misdiagnosis as well. As long as the communication channels are being kept open, any doubts and fears can be expelled.

Stage 5: Discharge and Starting the Care Plan

Two weeks after confirmation, the patient comes back to have the Pulmonary Function Test (PFT) done.  A Respirologist, used interchangeably with the pulmonologist in some organizations, gets results from tests and conveys them accordingly to the patient’s doctor. The doctor prescribes medication. The patient is subjected to many lifestyle change programs such as smoking cessation if he or she is a smoker or a diet plan for those who are overweight. Inhalers may also be prescribed at this stage.

Before discharge, many things are explained to the patient such as Inhaler Technique education, Dietitian and Physical Therapy assessment, etc. At this point of care, the patient journey may or may not involve a remote patient monitoring component. If the patient is to be monitored remotely, then the ins and outs of the RPM program is explained, including access to a helpline, or referral to inpatient or outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation program.

There is a large vacuum in this stage about the accountability of education. Inhalers aren’t always explained, and many patients refer to pharmacists after the general practitioners give them medicines. Also, from the whole journey’s perspective, stage 5 may be the most crucial as it packs so many things into one episode just before discharge and commencement of the care plan. It is also the stage, where the patient may first be introduced to the idea of a remote monitoring program (RPM). If it will help keep in touch with the patients down the road, and ensure adherence of medication and lifestyle programs and administer emergency virtual visits, then a proper onboarding process is necessary for the patient. Also, the choice of rehabilitation programs is a major decision that is to be made, regarding the intensity levels of the program, and the location.

Stage 6: First Assessment

In the early assessment stage, further tests are done to see if there is progress, or if there are any complications, or worse still regression. The COPD 6 test, or more PFTs may be conducted. The COPD patient gets to know the respirologists, respiratory therapists and nurse practitioners pretty well here as they regularly counsel the patient and fill in the gaps where there might be questions. At the end of this stage, the patient is referred back to the GP who writes them a COPD action plan. There is a load management issue on the side of providers at this stage, as they look to first serve the high-risk groups out of the whole COPD population that meet necessary criteria. It is important to mandate what all the different care providers’ roles are at this stage, and how they can contribute to the betterment of the patient.

Stage 7: Second Assessment

At this point of the patient’s journey, either respiratory conditions are stabilized or there are signs of steady improvement. However, there is a chance of regression as well, upon which the patient will be referred to a specialist and new medications may be prescribed. If conditions don’t improve, or continue to worsen, it is a worrisome time for the patient. They seek second opinions on the medications being prescribed. Exercise can also be stopped at this stage, if the physical conditions do not permit it. There are many mentions of difficulty here, the two major categories being physical and emotional. Top 3 physical difficulties are mucus clearance, impedance on daily Activities, and poor sleep quality. The top 3 emotional difficulties are sadness, anxiety and depression. Balking the downward spiral of the patient at this stage can be considered a success, depending on the gravity of the situation.

Stage 8: O2 Therapy

Eventually if the symptoms keep aggravating, then the patient is referred to home oxygen therapy, where they are fitted with O2 cylinders. Sometimes such a state can be brought about by not adhering to the medication or lifestyle changes program. Hence why RPM programs can and do play a big role in modern COPD programs. Such a stage is best avoided if possible, as patients report their increased levels of struggle. They have to end up going to ER or use urgent care more frequently because of incidents like breathlessness or respiratory infections. From here onwards, if the patient’s condition plummets further, they may be transferred to hospice, especially if they have emerging complications or bad cases of comorbidities. The freefall of quality of life is quite one-sided in both stages 7 and 8, and more research on medicine must be conducted to see if such patients’ fortunes can be overturned.


COPD can be a tough pill to swallow; it is the only chronic disease in the USA where the mortality rate is still rising. It requires cooperation and fortitudinous will on the part of the patient, and a stellar COPD program that absorbs all cases and churns out the best possible outcome on the part of hospitals. By understanding each step of the process, it is my firm belief, that hospitals can advance toward true person-centred care. In chronic diseases such as COPD, it may be the best shot for a provider organization to separate itself from the rest of the pack. It’s not like there is a lack of incentives, with everything shifting towards more value-based care, and both state and federal laws loosening up to monetize the provision of remote care programs.

What do you think of the 8 steps of the COPD journey?  Email me at Or let us know on our media channels.

Image result for linkedin logo     Image result for facebook icon png      Image result for twitter icon png

We are Aetonix. We simplify complex healthcare. Full disclosure, we are in Telehealth. But we are involved in Remote Patient Monitoring for those who needed it most, patients suffering from complex needs.


Keep reading
Keep reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *