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Cheyne Gang Singing Group

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

You will not hear it again.

The Cheyne Gang was founded in 2013, to work with people living with long-term respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and bronchiectasis. Originally, three general practice nurses—Pauline Waugh, Anne Ritchie and Sarah Marshall—started the group as a research project. They met in Cheyne Street, in Edinburgh, which gave rise to the group’s name. The aim of their research was to look at the impact that singing in a group had on the quality of life of the participants. That is summed up by their motto,

“breathe to sing, sing to breathe”.

The Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland was the first organisation to recognise the potential in the work that Pauline, Anne and Sarah proposed, and it provided the grant for the initial research project.

In November 2019, Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland revealed that a record 139,000 people in Scotland had been diagnosed with COPD. That is an increase of 26 per cent since 2011. Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland has also highlighted that many lung conditions, such as COPD, are incurable and leave people having to cope with symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue, which can affect every aspect of someone’s life from work to family and social life. It is evident that the treatment of lung diseases represents a significant issue for the national health service, and the management of lung disease is often an on-going struggle for the patient.

The research findings from the Cheyne Gang show that the majority of members have experienced measurable improvements in their quality of life and that there have been noted reductions in chest infections, inhaler use and hospital admissions. The measurable success of the group has led to its receiving endorsements from the respiratory physiotherapy and pulmonary rehabilitation leads in both NHS Lothian and NHS Borders.

In a joint briefing that was sent to me by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, they explained how the group’s work helps people who are living with long-term respiratory conditions. They said:

“In some lung conditions, like COPD, your airways are narrowed or obstructed. This can make it difficult to empty air out of your lungs when you breathe out, and air gets trapped in your lungs. If you don’t empty your lungs effectively, you’ll only be able to ‘top up’ your breath—using the top of your chest to breathe, instead of your whole lungs. This uses muscles in your neck and shoulders, which can get tired quickly. Singing long phrases helps you lengthen your out-breath to empty your lungs. This helps to reduce the amount that you use muscles in your neck and shoulders when you take your next breath in. This saves energy and makes breathing more comfortable”.

I am pleased to say that, although it started as a small research project, the group now comprises over 120 members. There are groups in many areas across Edinburgh, including Stockbridge, the Pleasance, Leith and, of course, Oxgangs, in my constituency. There are also groups in the Dennistoun and Bridgeton areas of Glasgow and in Innerleithen and Coldstream. On top of that, the Cheyne Gang supports groups in Forfar and Helensburgh. Trained singing group leaders, all of whom have qualified through an in-house training course—the only such course available in Scotland—facilitate each singing session.

Although the original research project has been completed, the Cheyne Gang, which became a charity in 2017, continues to contribute to research. It is working with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on the our health project at the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the institute for bioengineering, to develop a medical device to measure airways resistance in a community setting. It is also working with Pharmatics, a company that specialises in artificial intelligence and machine learning for health, to develop a self-management app for respiratory conditions, which will provide advice and feature the breathing exercises that are taught in the group.

The Cheyne Gang has taken the opportunity to contribute its significant knowledge and understanding of the benefits of singing to the Scottish Government’s consultation on a draft respiratory care action plan for Scotland.

As well as promoting the benefits of singing, the group’s work helps to tackle social isolation. Its regular sessions provide a meeting place where people with similar health conditions can share their experience and give peer support. Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland recognises that the group is a fantastic example of the different ways in which people can be supported to self-manage their lung conditions, beyond medical treatment from the national health service.

As well as focusing on health benefits, the group will perform at the Usher Hall in March, alongside four other choirs, as part of Edinburgh sings! I take this opportunity to wish everyone the very best for the concert and to give members the chance to get a ticket, so that they can hear the group sing.

As the research—and my visit to the Cheyne Gang—shows, it is clear that singing is an inexpensive form of pulmonary rehabilitation. It is an effective approach to managing breathlessness. Many of the guests who are in the Parliament today are a living example of how singing can improve health outcomes.

We need this fantastic initiative to be given support, so that it can be rolled out across Scotland and other people with breathing problems can benefit from a song, a cup of tea and a blether.