Comment: Our reserves were not built to survive long Covid

The Asthma Society of Ireland wants to end deaths from the condition by 2030, but the prolonged pandemic has heaped pressure on its services

Sarah O‘Connor, chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland: ’We are incredibly serious about ending asthma deaths by 2030‘.

Health charities and organisations representing vulnerable patients are experiencing the financial and strategic equivalent of long Covid in the not-for-profit sector.

Last year, launching our new strategy during Asthma Awareness Week, I wrote with great pride in the Business Post about our agility in responding to the need to build scale in programmes quickly.

I outlined our vision to be the voice of the 380,000 people with asthma in Ireland and our mission to end asthma deaths in the country. Our most recent figures show that one person dies a week in Ireland as a result of their asthma.

When the pandemic hit, we established a Covid-19 response team who all worked tirelessly to ensure we had accurate information, advice and recommendations on the condition and the virus on our website and social media.

Patients with asthma were considered to be at greater risk of contracting the severe form of Covid-19. It is impossible to convey the fear and anxiety they experienced around this prospect.

We stood down programmes that were impossible to deliver or less urgent as our flagship support service, the Asthma Adviceline, truly came into its own.

Ordinarily, the society has one full-time receptionist taking Adviceline calls, but between March and June of last year, we had five full-time staff triaging and managing calls, as well as scheduling nurse appointments.

The team managed 6,816 incoming and outgoing support calls in 2020. We also provided 4,416 nurse appointments, a 148 per cent increase on 2019.

When the scale of the challenge became clear, we realised we could not afford to rely on our one-to-one services and we worked to scale our patient supports to help as many people as possible.

In the initial weeks, we created updates of our frequently asked questions on Covid-19, taking input and approval from our clinical advisors and the National Clinical Respiratory Programme.

With each iterative wave of concern from patients, we responded proactively with medical guidance, advice and support through our own channels, digital media and traditional media. With each of these waves, we advocated to the Minister for Health, Department of Health, HSE and Clinical Respiratory Programme for what patients needed – and they listened.

Despite a focus on Covid-related queries, asthma action plans were discussed on 88 per cent of Adviceline nurse appointments. The plans are a roadmap for an asthma patient or their carer to understand how to manage their condition, helping patients recognise when they need help. International research indicates that they are a key intervention proven to prevent asthma deaths.

In May of last year we launched a new Sláintecare-funded service. Staffed by a respiratory specialist nurse team, it offered asthma support, guidance and advice for patients over WhatsApp.

Our Covid-19 story continued with our inundated services, but we put the patient at the core of everything we chose to do. We listened to them and we created a whole host of specially designed Covid-19 supports, and programmes tailored to their needs.

It’s a long list but it includes asthma management masterclasses, support packs delivered through Careplus pharmacies, Covid-19 leaflets specially for respiratory patients, special materials for those with health literacy challenges, videos, cocooner packs, broadcasts and campaigns.

We do not yet know how many people in Ireland with asthma have contracted Covid-19. We do not know the impact on their health from the virus. But our research launched this week, a year on, shines a light on how the pandemic has affected patients with asthma.

Some 50 per cent of those surveyed said they had an asthma attack in the past year, while 14 per cent had experienced an attack in the past four weeks alone. Some 26 per cent of respondents said that they had avoided attending emergency units with their asthma despite experiencing emergencies.

Around 38 per cent also admitted that they have avoided support or healthcare services in the past year as they were concerned about the health impact of Covid-19.

So they need our help – to manage their asthma, and to prevent asthma deaths. The problem lies in the point I made in this newspaper last year, where I referenced the need for the chief executive officer to be the chief asking officer.

One year later, I read it while shaking my head. We have been asking, and we had some limited good news: a new philanthropic support and one legacy donation in July of last year meant any job losses could be deferred for months.

But some of our longstanding corporate relationships have not been sustained last year and this year, when most needed. Companies are hard-hit by Covid-19 or investing in themselves in order to withstand it. Almost 30 per cent of our income is derived from partnerships, so a reduction spanning two years has a significant impact.

Our planned move to event fundraising coincided with Covid-19. Our reserves were not built to withstand long Covid.

We cannot let the pandemic derail us. We are incredibly serious about ending asthma deaths by 2030. We are a very small team but we are working to help our 380,000 patients with asthma manage during the pandemic while their access to healthcare services is limited.

As a chief executive, and as chief asking officer, I ask you to support us.

Sarah O‘Connor is chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland. To donate or for further information click here