The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has called for “more efficient investigation pathways” following the publication of new data that shows GPs refer over 80% of suspected cancers after two consultations.
Only 58% of patients were sent to see a specialist after their first appointment, a study published in the British Journal of Cancer claims.
Over 13,000 patients were studied by researchers from Cambrigde, Durham and Bangor universities to measure how fast cancer is diagnosed.
“These results show the progress we’re making in spotting cancer at the earliest opportunity,” said Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, the study author from Cambridge.
Some cancers are “harder to spot”, according to the researchers, who suggest it is because the symptoms can be mistaken for less serious conditions.
Assessment must be ‘smarter’
Last year the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) launched a programme to improve early diagnosis of cancer in general practice.
Co-author, RCGP and Cancer Research UK’s clinical lead for cancer Professor Greg Rubin said: “NICE referral guidelines have helped people with classic symptoms to be seen more quickly but, for patients with less typical symptoms, the decision to refer isn’t always as simple.”
Professor Rubin said GPs need to consider ways to make primary care assessment “even smarter”, perhaps by “more efficient investigation pathways”.
Dr Lyratzopoulos said: “Not suspecting cancer early enough can be stressful for patients and their relatives so understanding the symptoms of these cancers better is where we need to be making greater research efforts to help spot the disease earlier.”
The more consultations a patient needs, the greater number of weeks between first presentation and referral, the study claims.
‘Room for improvement’
It then takes longer for before patients can be seen by hospital specialists, Measures of promptness of cancer diagnosis in primary care: secondary analysis of national audit data on patients with 18 common and rarer cancers shows.
“These findings are encouraging but there is still room for improvement,” Sara Hiom, early diagnosis director at Cancer Research UK, said.
She said: “Progress is clearly being made but one in five people have to make more than two visits to their GP.”
Hiom added “every effort” needs to be made to support GPs in consistently and accurately diagnosing the disease.