Fresh pair of eyes may aid cancer diagnosis

PATIENTS may have a better chance of early diagnosis of some cancers if seen by an "unknown doctor" rather than their regular GP, according to a Cancer Research UK study.

Researchers from the University of Bristol found that symptoms of lung and bowel cancer tended to be picked up slightly more quickly if patients did not see the same GP.

The study used data from the General Practice Research Database across a ten-year period from 2000 to 2009 and included around 18,500 patients with a diagnosis of breast, bowel or lung cancer. Patients were aged 40 years or older at diagnosis and with at least one year of medical data. Relevant cancer symptoms or signs were identified up to one year before diagnosis and this was compared to how often patients saw the same doctor up to two years before diagnosis.

Seeing the same doctor over the two years before diagnosis with bowel cancer was linked to a longer time to diagnosis, although this was small with a maximum delay of around seven days. But continuing to see the same doctor after worrying symptoms were spotted tended to get a diagnosis around 14 days quicker. For lung cancer patients, this was around 18 days.

Seeing the same doctor either before or after experiencing potential breast cancer symptoms didn’t seem to affect time to diagnosis, suggesting that the potential benefits may be restricted to cancers that are harder to diagnose.

Study leader Dr Matthew Ridd, a GP and senior lecturer in primary care at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care, said: "These findings provide some evidence that GPs should follow-up patients who present with potential cancer symptoms to make sure they receive a timely diagnosis. But interestingly we also found that your regular doctor might not be the best person to spot those symptoms in the first place. So in some cases getting a second opinion from a different doctor could speed up the time to diagnosis."

"We looked at breast, bowel and lung cancer in this initial study, so further research is needed to investigate what effect seeing the same doctor has on the speed of diagnosis for different types of cancer, and for people whose symptoms turn out not to be related to an underlying cancer."

Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, said: "Many people prefer to have a single family doctor, but these intriguing findings suggest that in some cases a fresh pair of eyes could be better at spotting early signs of cancer. Most GPs will only see eight or so new cancer cases a year, despite thousands of patients arriving with potential cancer symptoms, so anything that can be done to support GPs in diagnosing cancer earlier is worth pursuing."