"GPs failing to spot cancer" despite investment of £millions


According to a new report from the Department of Health (DoH), 25% of people eventually diagnosed with cancer have to consult their GP at least 3 times before being referred to hospital for tests.

Despite substantial investment meant to allow GPs faster access to critical tests, many people are still faced with excessively long waiting times.

delayed diagnosis of cancer can be fatal

The DoH's National Cancer Patient Experience Survey for 2011-12 found that 1 in 10 people had to see their family doctor on 5 or more occasions before gaining a hospital referral. Almost 1 in 6, or 16%, were forced to consult their GP 3 or 4 times.

In a bid to resolve the UK's cancer survival rates – due to late diagnosis, the worst in Europe – the government in 2011 invested £450 million in a 4-year scheme to enable GPs to more readily refer patients for tests.

Among its measures, patients could be referred directly for ultrasounds, chest X-rays and brain scans instead of through a consultant.

However, the survey found that of the 71,793 participating patients, a quarter had seen their GP at least 3 times before being sent to hospital: the same proportion as in a similar survey in 2010, which preceded the investment.

Macmillan Cancer Support expressed disappointment there was no improvement on the previous year. "Spotting cancer in its early stages can make a huge difference to getting vital treatment and have a very real effect on a patient's prognosis," said Dr Rosie Loftus, a GP adviser with Macmillan.

Andrew Wilson, chief executive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation, stressed that the survey demonstrates many patients are diagnosed quickly.

"However, it is worrying there are still big variations in the number of times they have to visit a GP before getting a referral.

"The NHS needs to do more to help GPs identify signs of cancer if potentially fatal delays are to be avoided. GPs should be making better use of tests to rule out cancer first."

According to a DoH spokesman, family doctors play an important part in diagnosing cancer early. "It is important they receive the right support to assess and refer patients with symptoms of suspected cancer."

According to the journal GP in 2011, in order to save money 25% of NHS trusts were advising family doctors to refer fewer patients for scans. In summer 2012, the National Cancer Intelligence Network found that a "postcode lottery" was compromising opportunities for referral, with patients in some areas more than 60 times more likely than others to be sent for scans.

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