This is a plain English summary of an original research article
A one-off GP letter reminding parents of children with asthma to use their medications over the August summer holiday did not prevent a characteristic annual peak in unplanned care on returning to school in September, but did lead to more prescriptions.
Unplanned care represents visits to the GP or accident and emergency that is not part of the child’s asthma care plan. They do not include scheduled medical review or visits for repeat prescriptions.
The letter prompted about a third more parents to collect inhaler prescriptions in August than parents receiving no letter. But this failed to reduce the high proportion of children receiving unplanned care in September (45% of children in the letter group compared to 44% in the control group).
Most of the unplanned care was not for asthma, which may be why the letter had little impact. It remains unclear why children with asthma are more likely to access unplanned care.
This NIHR-funded trial was large, well-designed and, despite problems with labelling planned and unplanned care, is likely to be reliable.
Why was this study needed?
About 25% of children under 12 have had at least one episode of wheeze or have asthma. A previous NIHR study found that children with asthma are twice as likely to access unplanned care when returning to school in September as their non-asthmatic counterparts.
Researchers noticed unplanned care contacts peaked in September and followed a 25% dip in asthma prescription collections in August.
So they wanted to test a way to encourage parents to pick up prescriptions for their children in the August summer holiday, and to use them in the run-up to returning to school. They hoped this would reduce or remove the September peak.
Their intervention of choice was an inexpensive one-off letter sent to the parents of children with asthma from their family GP.
What did this study do?
This cluster-randomised control trial, called PLEASANT, recruited 12,179 children with asthma in England and Wales. Around half (5,917) were randomly assigned to receive the letter, with the rest (6,262), receiving usual care and no letter.
The letter encouraged parents to check their child’s asthma medication was up-to-date and that they take it for at least two weeks before school started.
Planned and unplanned medical contacts were automatically captured using the Clinical Practice Research DataLink, a research database. This links patients’ medical records to prescriptions collected, attendance at hospital, their GP, or other medical services.
Data analysis spanned August 2013 to August 2014 with the main focus on unplanned care in September 2013.
Database records weren’t always complete or coded accurately, but this is unlikely to have changed the overall conclusions.
What did it find?
- A higher proportion of parents collected steroid inhaler prescriptions in August 2013 having received the letter than not, 16.5% versus 12.6% (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 1.43, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.24 to 1.64).
- The proportion of children accessing at least one unscheduled medical contact in September 2013 was no different in those sent the letter than not, 45.2% compared with 43.7% (adjusted OR 1.09, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.25).
- Over the full year, September 2013 to August 2014, the number of unscheduled and scheduled medical contacts was slightly lower in those sent the letter, 11.5 contacts per child, compared with no letter, 12.1 contacts per child (adjusted incidence rate ratio [IRR] 0.95 95%CI 0.91 to 0.99).
- Most of the scheduled and unscheduled visits were not asthma related. Over the year, 88% of visits were for a non-respiratory reason in each group.
- The letter had the opposite effect than intended for some outcomes. For example, the proportion of children with asthma taking up at least one unscheduled medical contact for asthma-related reasons in September 2013 was actually higher in the letter group, 5.3%, compared with no letter 4.2% (adjusted OR 1.30, 95% CI 1.03 to 1.66).
- The economic analysis used the full year data to predict the letter was 96.3% likely to be cost saving, at an average cost saved of £36.07 per child. No quality of life benefits were predicted for the children.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
A NICE asthma management guideline covering children under five, young people aged five to sixteen and adults diagnosed with asthma is currently in development. Final publication is expected June 2017 and consultation on a draft closes 16 February 2017.
Current draft recommendations on self-management say:
- Offer an asthma self-management package, comprising a written personalised action plan with supportive education, to adults, young people and children aged five and over with a diagnosis of asthma (and their families or carers if appropriate).
- Consider an asthma self-management package, comprising a written personalised action plan with supportive education, for the families or carers of children under five with suspected or confirmed asthma.
Advice from Asthma UK reminds parents to maintain children’s asthma medication over the school summer holidays.
What are the implications?
A one-off letter is unlikely to reduce the September peak in unplanned care.
While asthma management is important in its own right, as only a minority of the unplanned care was asthma related, establishing what is behind the majority appears the better strategy to tackle the September peak.
The current draft NICE guideline doesn’t refer to the PLEASANT trial or its economic analysis but recommends written personalised asthma action plans to promote better self-management of asthma, among other recommendations.
Poor adherence to asthma medication is known to be an issue but was not measured in this trial, so still needs attention.
Citation and Funding
Julious SA, Horspool MJ, Davis S, et al. PLEASANT: Preventing and Lessening Exacerbations of Asthma in School-age children Associated with a New Term - a cluster randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation. Health Technol Assess. 2016;20(93):1-154.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme (project number 11/01/10).
Asthma UK. Asthma at school and nursery. London: Asthma UK; (undated).
Asthma UK. Your asthma action plan. London: Asthma UK; 2016.
NICE. NICE Pathway; Asthma Management. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2017.
Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre