“We can and will do better” – An interview on pulmonary fibrosis with Dr. Jeff Swigris

Just this past month, a few members of the PatientsLikeMe Team (Arianne, Dave and Rishi) traveled to La Jolla, CA for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation Summit. It was quite the mixed crowd (with patients, clinicians and researchers), and it gave them (and everyone at PatientsLikeMe) a chance to learn more about pulmonary fibrosis (PF) from different points of view. Thank you to everyone who stopped by our exhibit booth and for sharing your experiences.

While they were there, the team had the chance to interview Dr. Jeff Swigris. He’s an Associate Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver and has been working with PF patients for almost two decades. He’s published over 65 articles on interstitial lung disease (ILD), most on IPF, and he has a special interest in Patient Reported Outcomes (PROs) and patients’ Quality of Life (QOL). Dr. Swigris is also the Director of the Participation Program for Pulmonary Fibrosis (P3F), an online resource for patients, caregivers or anyone interested in learning more about PF. On the P3F website, patients and caregivers can also find out about studies they can currently enroll in. Right now, the P3F is currently enrolling for a study that aims to examine the effects of supplemental oxygen on patients with PF and their caregivers.

Why do PROs matter? And what questions are Dr. Swigris and his team at the P3F trying to answer? Find that and more in our interview.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and what led you to focus your research on pulmonary fibrosis?

Originally from Illinois, I went to med school and completed much of my education in Ohio before pursuing subspecialty training in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine in California. What led me to focus on PF? Like many pulmonologists, at the start, my interest was in the critical care medicine aspect of the profession, because it’s so immediate: there’s an urgent medical need that requires an instant intervention, and you can see the results of your decisions right away. That pace/action drew me to the field, but as a resident, in the late 1990s, I did a pulmonary pathology rotation. This was around the time we were uncovering new and exciting things about interstitial lung disease (ILD) in general and PF in particular. The community discovered that, upon careful re-inspection, certain ILD patients that had been labeled with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) lived longer than expected, and their longer survival was driven largely by what was seen under the microscope—in lung biopsy specimens from these patients. When I landed at Stanford, I didn’t want to focus on pathology, I wanted to focus on ILD patients. There wasn’t a structured ILD program at Stanford when I first arrived, but IPF researcher and one of my mentors, Glenn Rosen, offered me the chance to help him start one. I realized no one in the ILD community was focused on ILD patient experiences and their quality of life (QOL). I wanted to focus on ILD patients as people and really understand their experiences (probably influenced by my training in osteopathic medicine, which offered me the perspective of looking at patients through a holistic lens). It was a gap that needed to be filled. I had found my niche. That’s how I got started focusing on the patient experience, patient reported outcomes (PROs) and QOL in PF.

For those who might not know about it yet, what’s the P3F all about?

The goal of the P3F is to create a safe, trustworthy online environment and informational resource for patients and caregivers and to provide a platform for conducting research that matters to patients with PF. In the current project, we’re trying to determine whether and how supplemental oxygen affects (benefits) patients with PF. We’re funded by PCORI, which is an amazing research organization. As mandated by PCORI, we’re getting everyone involved in this research: patients, caregivers, even oxygen prescribers. Above all, this project gives me a chance to work with very engaged patients, some of who are actually members of my research team.

Knowing what questions to ask patients, the when, how and why of the thing is really important. The first thing we needed to do for this project was to figure out what question needed to be asked—what question do patients with PF want to know about? We started the investigation by going to the experts—the patient- and their caregiver-members of our PF support group. I noticed all my PF patients ask about oxygen, and oxygen is a major topic at our support group meetings. My perception is that oxygen is generally perceived as a “bad” thing because it’s a marker/milestone that the disease is severe and progressing. When supplemental oxygen comes into the home, it affects the entire home environment and everyone there, particularly the patient, but also the caregiver. There’s a lot of equipment and planning involved, as patients know, and using oxygen becomes “a daily grind.” Supplemental oxygen can be a constant reminder the disease is getting worse, but the reality is we know very little about the therapeutic effects of oxygen for PF patients (and the majority of the available data has been mostly borrowed from COPD studies). Some questions we want to know about oxygen use are:

  • Do patients who use it feel better?
  • Does using oxygen allow people to be more active? Does this change the longer patients use oxygen?
  • Are people who use supplemental oxygen more or less likely to leave the home? Does this change the longer patients use oxygen?
  • Do patients who use it live longer?
  • Does oxygen use prevent pulmonary hypertension?
  • What are the downsides to using oxygen (eg, public stigma)?

I want to include patients in the process of filling this big gap in knowledge (about supplemental oxygen), and I needed patients to help us shape the goals of the study. (Sounds pretty in line with PatientsLikeMe!)

On PatientsLikeMe, the pulmonary fibrosis community has their own patient reported outcome measure (PRO) we call the PF Severity Score. Can you tell us a little about your own interests in PROs and how you see them being used in healthcare?

I believe the patients’ perspectives are incredibly important, and they will be increasingly used as endpoints in therapeutic trials. Improving lung function is one thing, but is that all we can do? NO! We want to allow patients to feel better and do more. Improved patient QOL should be a major goal, maybe the most important goal. The challenge is the rigorous development of PROs, so the clinical and research community can be confident the PRO is sound.

How do you think online communities like PatientsLikeMe can impact someone living with a rare lung condition?

For some patients, particularly those with rare diseases, it may be difficult or impossible to find other patients with the same illness. Even for common diseases, there is such comfort in knowing you’re not alone (online or in person, someone knows what you’re going through). Knowing you’re not alone gives you confidence, a sense of control, to persevere and keep living.

As an expert in the field, what’s ahead for pulmonary fibrosis research and quality of life advancements? (Any studies you’d want people to know about?)

As mentioned above, one of the big gaps in understanding of ILD is the benefits and drawbacks of supplemental oxygen. That’s what the current study on the P3F is focused on. People can find out more information on that here. We need disease-specific PROs that have been rigorously developed in the targeted patients. Continuing to borrow data from other diseases won’t work for the PF community in the long term. I’m definitely interested in learning more about how I might partner with PatientsLikeMe and use the Open Research Exchange to develop these PROs. If we all find a way to work together, we can and will do better for patients.

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3 thoughts on ““We can and will do better” – An interview on pulmonary fibrosis with Dr. Jeff Swigris”

  1. Was diagnosed in 1998 by my G. P. with PF. I was just told at the time to stay in bed. After a couple of months (BTW it was winter) and when the weather warmed up I was up and out and about. 2003 I was put in the hospital with symptoms of a heart attach. Every cardiac test was run on me and the DR suggested it was ribs (arthritis) and breathing. I returned to an active life and was managing with a but if shortness of breathe. Christmas of 2007 a nurse approached me and told me my lips and fingernail were turning blue. Told me I should go to the ER. My pulse/ox was 83 at the ER and I had pneumonia and a chronic cough. Needless to say spent a week in the hospital with tests and confirmation I had IPF. Seen the Pulmonary DR and told to apply for disability and stay on steroids and O2 @ 3.5 go home there is nothing more I can do for you. Without a biopsy of my lung. The biopsy was unsuccessful due to my very small bronchial tubes. I was pretty banged up internally and in ICU for a week on heavy doses of steroids. I then went back to my DO GP, he was the first to tell me I had PF has taken amazing care of me. It was a diagnosed from an Xray , He called it Scattered Lung. He had me on small doses of steroids and a Depo shot. Slowly, I realized I could take the O2 off if I was idle and needed it when up and moving. Side note: I am at my worst with smells of flowers, perfume, cleaners, etc. Can’t take the cold air in winter and can’t take the heat of summer. It was soon after the high doses of steroid period I found out I had breast cancer. I had a core Mastectomy and 39 treatments of radiation in one week, twice a day through an inserted water filled bubble to send the radiation outward. I am cancer free. My DO PH does a lot of studying and came across an article on women with lung disease, cancer and thyroid. Found that it was a cause of lack of Iodine in the body. I took a test for the iodine in my system and it showed I lacked next to no iodine in my body. I started taking iodine tablets, clonazapam and armor thyroid, Of course, the normal vitamins. I had the shingles this past summer pretty severely . With all this said, I stopped taking steroids on my own and my physician agreed. This is still the case today. I was told I had 3-5 yrs to live in 2007 and here I am telling you my story.

  2. Was just reading Mary’s story and was wondering how it was possible for her to have radiation therapy for her Breast cancer because she also has pulmonary Fibrosis. My Dad was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis about 18 months ago and in january of this year he was also diagnosed with a stage 3 lung tumour. He was told he wasn’t suitable for surgery and that radiation would damage his lung tissue and chemo would only extend his life by 3 or 4 months. So he has had no treatment for his cancer. He is 79 but before all this he was in reasonably good healh apart from his rheumatiod arthritis which he has had for about 10yrs. Was just wondering if anyone knew of any treatments that are available that might help my Dad.

  3. My husband has suffered from sarcoidosis for over 28 years. During this time he has been in remission and inactive for approximately 4 years and not on any medication. However when the disease was at its worst in the beginning, he was on 8 prednisone per day before being lowered once the illness was under control. During the last 2 years his prednisone was lowered to 2 every other day. He currently goes for check ups every 3 months and the Professor he sees says that the scarring on the lung has become worse and consequently he has developed PF. He has had a constant cough for nearly 2 years. The prof has given him medication and inhalers, but none which you mentioned in a previous article, (Thalidomide, Benzonatate, N-acetyl cysteine or horehond cough drops. He used fishermens friend which did help for a while. We are at our wits end as he is unable to have a decent nights sleep – perhaps 4 hours. We are at our wits end and its just so good to find this blog and share.

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