GPs in England are being encouraged by the NHS advisory body to nearly double the number of patients referred for hospital cancer tests. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) said delays in spotting symptoms could be costing thousands of lives each year. About 1.2 million people are currently referred annually, but this figure could rise to 2 million.
A survey for the NHS last year suggested that a quarter of all people eventually diagnosed with cancer in England had to visit their doctor at least three times before being referred to hospital for tests.
Currently 280,000 people in England are diagnosed with cancer each year, with half surviving for at least 10 years.
Patients are meant to see a specialist within two weeks of a GP referral but can then face weeks of waiting for tests, meaning a growing number of patients do not get their treatment started within 62 days, as is meant to be the case.
The NHS are now looking to ensure that by 2020, a diagnosis of cancer will be given within 4 weeks of being referred by a GP.
Professor Mark Baker, NICE clinical practice director said “there are more than 200 different types of the disease so it is unrealistic to expect doctors to know every single sign and symptom of each one, especially when they only see a handful of new cases a year. For example, many people who smoke have a cough associated with chronic lung disease. These are the same people most likely to develop lung cancer, but may well dismiss their symptoms as ‘normal for them”.
Dr Maureen Baker, from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said that “an average GP might only see eight new cases of cancer for every 8,000 patient consultations, yet 75% of referrals made after one or two GP consultations lead to a positive diagnosis,” said the RCGP’s
NHS England’s cancer taskforce is replacing old radiotherapy machines and increasing specialist staff to ensure it delivers “world class” cancer care. The five-year plan will cost £400m a year but experts say earlier treatment will result in similar savings.
The improvements will cost £400m a year, but the taskforce believes that in the long term, this will be recouped as better care costs less money. For example, bowel cancer caught at a late stage costs four times as much to treat as when it is caught early.
Having undertaken many tragic cases of delayed diagnosis of cancer, MDS would welcome any steps that can be taken to ensure that cancer can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible and thereby giving the patient the best chance of a positive outcome.