Text service to support at-risk respiratory patients during COVID-19

A screenshot of the texting service on the mobile.  

A screenshot of the texting service on the mobile.  

While many hospital services are on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sydney University researchers have established a free text service to help people with existing chronic respiratory diseases.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have rallied to develop a free national text message support program for Australians with chronic respiratory diseases who are now socially isolated and unable to access usual hospital rehabilitation and support programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program reminds patients to seek usual medical care and take their prescription medication. It also offers practical advice, health information and support to help patients manage their illness during the pandemic. Patients will receive up to five messages direct to their mobile phone each week for six months.

Simple and immediate strategies are needed to support Australians with chronic respiratory disease.

Patients with chronic lung conditions including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma often rely on pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help manage their disease and reduce the likelihood of infection and hospitalisations. This group, comprising an estimated 7.4 million Australians , is particularly vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections

On site programs are generally led by health professionals in group sessions at community centres or hospitals. The COVID-19 pandemic has however seen all in-person support and exercise programs suspended.

Social distancing is crucial for patients with chronic respiratory conditions, who are among the most at-risk groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.  But it has also changed the way patients their access their usual medical care.

"We are currently faced with a global pandemic associated with a serious and respiratory-based virus in a context of reduced usual care amongst a group of patients with heightened fear, anxiety and uncertainty," said Professor Julie Redfern , Deputy Director of the Westmead Applied Research Centre  (WARC), Faculty of Medicine and Health.

"Therefore, simple and immediate strategies are needed to support Australians with chronic respiratory disease. Our goal is to provide patients an accessible way to overcome barriers of social distancing."

A team from the University of Sydney and WARC developed the program after pulmonary rehabilitation services were closed to minimise infection risk. The researchers and clinicians saw an immediate need to support people with chronic respiratory illnesses.

Drawing on over 5 years of experience, they were able to make the new program ready and workable in about 2 weeks. The program can be activated with one simple text message.

Leading respiratory physician and Lung Foundation Australia Chair, Professor Christine Jenkins AM said the free texting service will provide additional level support for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) patients.

"While Telehealth services are allowing patients to continue to access essential health services including appointments with their GP and specialists in their home, the text support system will connect them to additional information and support," Professor Jenkins said.

"We know for people living with a lung disease such as COPD, this is a really challenging time and many people are feeling anxious and overwhelmed. This free service will provide another layer of practical and supportive advice to help patients during this challenging time."

Text ’Lung’ for support

The simple text message service was developed in close collaboration with health professionals such as physiotherapists, doctors and nurses, and underwent development and review with clinicians and patients.

Patients can sign up by:

  • texting the word "lung" to the support phone number (0437 045 826)

  • by opening a weblink on their smartphone or computer, or

  • a QR code is also available.

When registration is complete, Australian patients are able to receive and access support for 6 months. The national program is free of charge for all Australians with chronic respiratory disease.

Rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures estimate 598,800 people have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which include people with chronic asthma and emphysema.

A recent meta-analysis (article in press) concluded patients with COPD had an over-five-fold increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection.

"Many patients are anxious about their risks of contracting the virus and also feel lonely and isolated," said Professor Redfern.

"We hope by offering the program to all Australians with chronic respiratory disease, we will see widespread support for these patients during a challenging time."

Professor Redfern said that they have already received positive feedback from participants, who told the team they found the messages "motivating, somebody out there who cares" and said the messages were "useful reminders and were all great".

"Getting the program ready for roll-out has been a rapid and collaborative effort amongst University of Sydney researchers, clinicians and the legal team. It is exciting to see things come together so fast so we can support patients as quickly as possible," said Professor Redfern.

The team is also finalising a similar support program for women after breast cancer treatment.


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