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Referral Delays Lead to Deaths of Thousands of Cancer Patients

A report has revealed that at least 2,400 cancer patients die needlessly every year because their GPs do not refer them to a specialist quickly enough. 

According to NHS Guidelines, patients who are exhibiting potential cancer symptoms should be referred to a specialist within two weeks of seeing a GP. New research, however, has revealed a high number of deaths in cancer patients whose GPs do not regularly use this pathway.

Report Findings

Cancer Research UK and The National Institute for Health Research funded the report which was published in the British Medical Journal. The report examined the data from 215,284 English cancer patients from 8,049 general practices who were diagnosed or first treated in 2009 and followed up in 2013.

Worryingly, the death rates increased by 7% for those cancer patients whose GP practices used the two-week wait least often compared with practices with a typical referral rate.

Conversely, patients from the best performing practices had a 4% lower death rate compared to those with a typical referral rate.

Reaction to the Findings

Lead author of the study, Professor Henrik Moller, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, said 2,400 more deaths occurred in the worst performing practices but this figure was likely to be conservative. He added that there needs to be an increase in General Practitioners’ cancer awareness to improve the likelihood of an urgent referral being made.

Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, Sarah Hiom, said: “This crucial evidence shows that the earlier a cancer patient is diagnosed the better the chances of survival, earlier cancer can be treated more effectively with a wider range of treatment options.”

Dr Rosie Loftus, Joint Chief Medical Officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “GPs encounter cancer comparatively rarely, but will see a large number of patients with a variety of symptoms which may or may not be to do with cancer, making diagnosis more difficult. It is therefore critical that GPs have tools available to help them spot cancer at the earliest possible stage.”

The National Clinical Director for cancer for NHS England, Professor Sean Duffy, has advised that whilst the number of patients referred to hospital for urgent cancer checks is up by over 600,000 over the past five years, NHS England want it to go up even more, so as to diagnose suspected cancers earlier.

Expert Opinion

This report highlights the difficulties faced by GPs and will hopefully ensure that, moving forward, GPs in the UK have the training and tools in place to increase their awareness of cancer symptoms.

However, it must be remembered that an earlier referral from a GP does not always result in earlier diagnosis. A recent blog: Hospital Trust’s Internal Review Reveals 400 Patients Misdiagnosed by my colleague, Jenny Urwin, noted unacceptable failings at The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, where there have been 105 cases of delays in the diagnosis or treatment of cancer in hospitals within the Trust over the past five years.

Early diagnosis of cancer is crucial to ensure the likelihood of a positive outcome and patients need to be listened to and have their symptoms investigated as early as possible in order to maximise their chances of making a full recovery.

One of my clients saw her GP five times over the course of a year regarding ongoing symptoms before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Had she been referred earlier, she would have received the necessary treatment for early cancer. As a result of the delay however, she had to undergo a hysterectomy and chemo-radiotherapy. Fortunately, she responded well to treatment and her future prognosis was good.

Lauren Tully is a Clinical Negligence Solicitor at Slater and Gordon in Manchester.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to Medical Negligence.

For a free consultation call the Medical Negligence Solicitors at Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9049 or contact us online and we will call you.

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