This is a matter of real concern because, whilst the prognosis is good if the condition is found early, it becomes very poor as time passes.
Bowel cancer is an extremely unpleasant condition which can require major surgery and leave people needing a stoma, often for life. Living with a stoma can be incredibly difficult. Many people find it both degrading and embarrassing as it can restrict their ability to get out and about, work, and enjoy a normal social life.
Worst of all, for many people, late bowel cancer is often a condition which can only ever be managed and not cured. As a result, their life expectancy can be very short. On many of these cases I have had to act for the family who have instructed me after the death of their loved one. These deaths are tragic, particularly where, as in many cases, they are preventable.
There are two common mistakes I typically come across leading to the delayed diagnosis of bowel cancer. The first of these is colonoscopies (or sigmoidoscopies) not being properly performed. Flexible colonoscopies are a means of examining the inside of the bowel by a camera attached to a flexible four foot long tube. They are normally used to look for pre-cancerous growths known as polyps. It can take up to a decade for a polyp to become cancerous so it is vital they are carried out properly to ensure polyps can be removed before they cause harm.
In several cases I have handled these investigations have not been properly performed. In one case, polyps were missed some five years before they became cancerous. Sadly, by the time my client was diagnosed, she was very seriously ill. Following her death, some months into the claim, I continued to act for her children and eventually recovered more than £200,000 in damages.
The other common mistake I see in these cases is a failure by GPs to follow the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines and refer patients for investigation. The guidelines require urgent referral for any patient over 40 with rectal bleeding and a change in bowel habits, such as looser stools or increased stool frequency over a period of six weeks. Patients over 60 require urgent referral after rectal bleeding for six years or a change in bowel habit over six weeks. Therefore, as people get older, their GPs should be quicker to refer.
Other situations requiring urgent referral involve symptoms such as lumps or unexplained anaemia. Another case I handled concerned a woman who had gone to her GP with bleeding and a change in bowel habits six times over two years before she was referred. Sadly, she is now terminally ill.
Since the NICE guidelines are clear, it surprises me that in so many cases I have handled, GPs have failed to follow them. For patients with suspected bowel cancer, early investigation and diagnosis is vital given the very serious impact delays in diagnosis can cause.
The volume of cases the Clinical Negligence team at Slater and Gordon Lawyers have handled from negligent delays suggests that there is a significant problem which needs to be urgently addressed.
Paul Sankey is a Senior Medical Negligence Solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Clinical Negligence team in London.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to Medical Negligence.
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