Nurses warn 'harmful' prescription charges putting people at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks - and call for urgent review

Tuesday 10 September 2019

  • More than half (58%) of nurses in England surveyed by Asthma UK said their patients had an asthma attack or needed emergency care because their patient skipped their medication 
  • More than 9 in 10 (98%) nurses in England say that the prescription charges exemption list should be reviewed
  • Asthma UK, The Royal College of Nursing and The Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists are now calling for an urgent review of outdated prescription charges.

Hundreds of nurses in the UK have called for ‘harmful’ prescription costs for people with asthma to be reviewed after seeing their patients have an asthma attack or need emergency treatment because of the cost of prescriptions, according to a new report launched today by Asthma UK.

A Hidden Harm: why healthcare professionals want to stop unfair asthma prescription charges, a report published today by Asthma UK in collaboration with The Royal College of Nursing and Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists, includes findings from a survey of more than 600 nurses in the UK as well as 150 other healthcare professionals including doctors, pharmacists and paramedics.

The research highlights the harmful impact prescription charges are having on people with asthma, putting them at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks because they can’t afford their medication.

Some nurses also said patients were borrowing inhalers from their friends, relatives or even their own children because they couldn’t afford to buy their own, putting them at risk of taking the wrong medication, or the wrong dose. One healthcare professional told Asthma UK that she had found the money herself to pay for her patient’s prescription because she was worried about them being unable to afford their life-saving medication.

The overwhelming majority of nurses surveyed (92%) want ‘harmful’ prescription charges for people with asthma to be scrapped.

Asthma UK says it is unfair that people with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions for life-saving medication, especially as people with other long-term conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy, and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get free prescriptions.

With asthma deaths on the rise and at their highest for more than a decade, the charity is urgently calling on the leaders of the main political parties in England to commit to a review of the ‘outdated’ prescription charges medical exemptions list. When the medical exemption list was created over 50 years ago, treatments and the understanding of asthma were limited and there were very few treatments available. Since then, developments in medication have significantly improved, meaning some people have to take multiple medicines to manage their symptoms and it is costing them more to stay well.

Previous research from Asthma UK found that three quarters (76%) of people with asthma said they had struggled to afford their prescriptions. More than half (57%) of people with asthma who pay for their medication have skipped taking it because of the cost– an estimated 1.3 million people.

Mum-of-three Cathy Worboys lost her 19-year-old daughter Holly to an asthma attack in 2016. Holly was on a low income and struggled to pay for her asthma medication, so she rationed how much medicine she took, resulting in a fatal asthma attack. Cathy says that her daughter would still be alive today if prescription charges hadn’t discouraged her from regularly taking her asthma medication.

Bonnie Beard is a respiratory nurse who works in two GP surgeries in Essex and sees around 20 patients with asthma every week. She has been a nurse for 30 years and is a Queen’s Nurse. She said:

“I know first-hand that the cost of asthma prescriptions can be harmful to patients as it can prevent them from managing their asthma and in some cases, this can put lives at risk.

“Most weeks, I speak to patients whose asthma has worsened or who have had asthma attacks, sometimes requiring emergency care because they have been unable to afford to take the medication that keeps them well.

“I want the best for my patients so it is frustrating that some of them become unwell because they can’t afford to pay for their prescriptions. It seems unfair they have to pay when those with other long-term life-threatening conditions such as diabetes are exempt.

“Some of my patients might need as many as five prescription items but they have to wait until they get paid before they can afford to get their medicine. Others are borrowing their child’s inhaler or one from a relative or friend which means they are taking medication which may not be right for them. This can put them at risk of having poorly controlled asthma.

“The Government needs to urgently review prescription charges for asthma patients – before more suffer or lives are lost by those who can’t afford to pay for medicine.”

Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK and a qualified nurse, said:

“It’s really worrying that nurses who are working so hard to help their patients stay well are seeing people with asthma suffer because of an outdated and unfair policy. It is high time the Government took action and urgently reviewed asthma prescription charges so that people with asthma aren’t put at risk of avoidable but potentially life-threatening asthma attacks. No one should have to pay to breathe.”

Wendy Preston, Head of Nursing Practice at the Royal College of Nursing said:

“It cannot be acceptable that some people with long-term conditions are missing out on their vital medication because they cannot afford it.

“Nurses see the impact of this every day of the week and know what happens when people do not take their vital medication.

“This will only make their condition worse and they will end up needing further treatment adding additional pressure the health and care system.

“It is time that there is equity with other long-term conditions such as diabetes where prescription charges are exempt.”

Asthma UK is urging people with asthma, nurses and other healthcare professionals to join its Stop Unfair Asthma Prescription Charges campaign and sign its petition to end prescription charges.




For further information, please contact:

Emma Warren, Senior Media Officer - 0207 786 4982 or

Asthma UK media team – 0207 786 4949 or

Out of hours – 07951 721 393