Pneumonia - a severe lung infection - is the most common disease calling for hospital admission. More than one out of ten pneumonia patients die of the disease. Thus it is vital to accurately predict and closely monitor the clinical course. Here, measuring the respiratory rate - the number of breaths a person takes in a minute - provides valuable information. However, far too little use is still being made of this vital sign in clinical practice, as Richard Strauß and co-authors conclude in their recent study in Deutsches Ärzteblatt (Dtsch Arztebl Int 2014; 111: 503).
The respiratory rate has long been established as an important prognostic factor and aid to risk evaluation. For example, it was already known in the 1980s that pneumonia patients with increased respiratory rates were more likely to die than their counterparts with normal breathing. Despite recommendations to measure the respiratory rate in several diseases, it is still underutilized in hospitals, the study reveals. Although the respiratory rate is usually determined when pneumonia treatment is started, regular measurements and consistent documentation are rare. But counting the breaths in pneumonia patients should, as the authors point out, be as much of a routine as taking the pulse and measuring the blood pressure is today.