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Empowering Communities Most At Risk for COPD

Millions of people in America have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—the umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis—and millions more have it and don’t know it. People in rural and other underserved communities are more likely to face higher rates of COPD and worse health outcomes from the disease. And for anybody living with COPD, the virus that causes COVID-19—a disease that attacks the respiratory system—has only increased the risk of severe illness and death.

Each November, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI’s) Learn More Breathe Better® program joins the COPD community to mark National COPD Awareness Month. This year we also observe World COPD Day on November 17. Learn More Breathe Better is committed to bringing greater attention to this progressive lung disease, a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., in November and throughout the year.  

The signs and symptoms of COPD, such as ongoing coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath—especially with physical activity—may be mistaken for signs of aging or allergies. But these problems should not be ignored because with COPD, they get worse over time. Left undiagnosed, the disease can make it harder to work or do daily activities. Luckily, there are ways for people to reduce their risk, such as quitting smoking and avoiding environmental fumes. But if they get COPD and are diagnosed early, they can manage the disease by working with their healthcare provider on a treatment plan that may include medications, diet, exercise, and pulmonary rehabilitation.

Learn More Breathe Better works to not only engage those living with and at risk for COPD, but to help improve the care and support they receive from their caregivers and healthcare providers. One way this is done is through the Learn More Breathe Better Community Subcontract Program, which awards funding to support organizations working towards the goals of the COPD National Action Plan, particularly the goals focused on building awareness about the disease and improving patient care. Three organizations recently received funding for the 2021-2022 program cycle: the American Lung Association; Breathe California of the Bay Area, Golden Gate, and Central Coast; and the Emphysema Foundation of America.

The American Lung Association’s Reaching Rural Providers program recognizes that almost twice as many rural Americans have COPD compared to those in urban settings. People in rural areas may face special challenges that make it harder to prevent, diagnose, treat, and manage COPD. The American Lung Association is reaching out to nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other healthcare providers who work with patients in six Appalachian states. The organization offers professional trainings and courses, educational handouts, and other resources specific to rural community needs. These tools allow providers to help patients understand the early signs and symptoms of the disease and get proper testing and treatment for COPD.

Breathe California of the Bay Area, Golden Gate, and Central Coast is enhancing its Better Breathing with COPD in the Bay Area program and working with community-based partners. Together, they work to get lung health educational materials in the hands of the people who need them most. Senior centers, clinics, hospitals, and local media organizations help deliver clear, science-based messages about how people at risk of COPD can protect their health. To reach diverse audiences in the Bay Area, Breathe California is translating COPD materials into Asian languages, including Mandarin Chinese. They will also join forces with community health workers (promotores) to distribute Spanish-language COPD education resources to people in lower-resourced communities.

The Emphysema Foundation of America uses NHLBI support to ease the burden of COPD in Southern California. Through its STRIVETM workshops, the Foundation offers help to people with COPD by using tools and information about taking medications, preventing flare-ups, eating well, exercising, and stopping smoking. To best serve the community, the Foundation intends to offer approximately half of its STRIVE workshops in Spanish. NHLBI funding will allow the Foundation to hold these workshops at no cost to the attendees. The main goal of the program is to give participants the confidence and skills to manage their COPD, better communicate with their healthcare providers, and improve their quality of life.   

The COPD National Action Plan Community Action Tool

Many organizations, like the ones above that are working on the goals of the COPD National Action Plan, are now using the new COPD National Action Plan Community Action Tool (CCAT). The CCAT, launched earlier this year, is an online repository that allows organizations to enter their activities that advance any of the five objectives of the Plan. It lets the COPD community track its progress, and it makes it easier to collaborate and learn from each other.

Although November is National COPD Awareness Month, Learn More Breathe Better strives to empower communities most at risk for COPD, those living with the disease, and those who care about and treat them all year long. While there is no cure for COPD, with early diagnosis and treatment, people can manage their condition to help improve their quality of life and breathe better. For more information on the Community Subcontract Program activities, the CCAT, and for a range of educational resources on COPD, visit the Learn More Breathe Better program page at