Prescription history could aid cancer diagnosis

LOOKING for patterns in medication given to patients before they are identified with cancer could improve early diagnosis, according to researchers being funded by Cancer Research UK.

An anonymous dataset of nearly all NHS primary care prescription data – approximately 80 million medications being prescribed each month – will be linked to data in the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service to look for trends in medications given to patients before they are diagnosed with cancer.

It is hoped that the findings could help guide GP referrals, especially in patients with non-specific symptoms that don’t obviously indicate cancer. Only about half of patients with the most common cancers have “red-flag” symptoms and this is even lower in cancers with poor survival rates such as pancreatic, stomach, ovarian and brain cancer.

Medication patterns have before been shown to be indicative. Small studies from Denmark have found that many lung cancer patients had a history of being given prescriptions for antibiotics.

The research is being led by Health Data Insight which has received funding through Cancer Research UK’s Pioneer Awards scheme, which offers up to £200,000 to encourage innovative ideas that could be “game changing” in tackling cancer.

Dr Jem Rashbass, medical director at Health Data Insight, said: “We want to develop a tool that helps GPs diagnose cancer earlier in the hope of saving more lives. It can be very difficult for GPs to know which patients to refer for further tests.

“Large studies like this are only possible because anonymous data on large numbers of cancer patients is available for research through the NHS. Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up.”

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