Quarter of cancer patients experiencing diagnostic delays

  • Date: 12 December 2019

A QUARTER of all cancer patients in England have experienced avoidable delays in their diagnosis, according to a study conducted by Cancer Research UK.

Researchers looked at around 14,300 people diagnosed with cancer in England in one year and found that 3,400 patients experienced a delay that could have been avoided. Half of these patients waited around two months longer to be diagnosed compared with those who didn’t have an avoidable delay.

The data showed that 13 per cent of avoidable delays happened before the patient saw their GP and 38 per cent after the GP referred them to hospital. The other half (49 per cent) happened while the patient was being assessed by the GP surgery, including waiting for tests and results.

Researchers found that long waiting times for tests were responsible for a quarter of all avoidable delays across GP surgeries and hospitals and this may be indicative of diagnostic staff shortages in hospitals.

Cancer Research UK acknowledges that the reasons for delays can be complex. For example, patients with myeloma were more likely to experience delays while being assessed by their GP than patients with breast cancer, as the symptoms for myeloma can be an indication of many other conditions.

Ruth Swann, lead author and Cancer Research UK’s senior cancer information analyst, said: "Understanding when patients are experiencing delays leading up to their cancer diagnosis is really important to ensure people aren’t waiting unnecessarily for a potential diagnosis. Our research shows there’s a good opportunity to significantly reduce delays by cutting the time it takes for patients to have tests done. We need more research to develop and evaluate new diagnostic tests for patients with vague symptoms and a better way to manage them."

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, also commented: "GPs are doing a good job of referring patients we suspect of having cancer in a timely way. Research shows that nearly 80 per cent of all cancer cases are now referred after only one or two consultations – and this is happening despite the widely acknowledged workload crisis in general practice.

"GPs have to balance the risk of not referring a patient with that of over-referring, which can cause unnecessary concern for patients and risks overloading specialist services. It's a decision that is exacerbated as many symptoms of cancer are vague and often likely to be other, more common conditions. The College has been calling for many years for GPs to have better access to diagnostic tests in the community – and the appropriate training to use them – so that our decisions to refer can be better informed, and in turn ease pressures elsewhere in the health service."

The research was done in partnership with Public Health England’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS) and published in Cancer Epidemiology.

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