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Cancer referral delays 'cost lives'

19 October 2015 09:04

Some GPs are not referring cancer patients quickly enough, it is thought

Some GPs are not referring cancer patients quickly enough, it is thought

Thousands of cancer patients are dying needlessly every year because they are not referred to a specialist quickly enough, research suggests.

Patients with suspected cancer symptoms are meant to have their first appointment with a specialist within two weeks of seeing a GP.

But research published in the BMJ highlights a higher number of deaths in cancer patients whose GPs do not regularly use the urgent referral pathway.

Cancer caught early enough is often treatable and patients can supplement their treatment with a holiday by taking out cancer travel insurance.

Death rates

Lead author of the research Professor Henrik Moller, an epidemiologist at King's College London, estimates that 2,400 unnecessary deaths occur in the worst performing practices but says the figure could be higher.

The study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health Research, looked at data from 215,284 cancer patients in England in 2009.

It found death rates rose by 7% for patients whose GP practices used the two-week wait less often than those with a typical referral rate.

At the other end of the scale, patients from the best performing practices had a 4% lower death rate compared with those with a typical referral rate.

The data was gathered from 8,049 GP centres in England where patients were diagnosed or first treated in 2009 and followed up to 2013.

Early diagnosis

Professor Moller says increasing GPs' cancer awareness and their likelihood of urgently referring cancer patients could help to reduce deaths.

However, he concedes there is a fine line to tread between using the urgent referral route regularly and using it too much as the NHS is not equipped to cope.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, says the evidence shows that the earlier a cancer patient is diagnosed, the better the chances of survival.

Tumours can progress if there is a delay in time to diagnosis and starting treatment, she says, adding that it has "never been clearer that reducing late diagnosis saves lives and this research adds to our understanding of what can be done about it".