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Record number of urgent cancer referrals from GP practices in November

by Emma Wilkinson and Jess Hacker
21 January 2022

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GPs referred almost a quarter of a million patients for urgent cancer checks in November 2021, data released by NHS England shows.

The record high of 246,316 patients referred for suspected cancer suggests that increasing numbers are coming forward with concerning symptoms. The previous highest figure had been 232,136 referrals in March 2021.

But the provisional data shows that 77.4% were seen by a specialist within two weeks of their urgent referral, down from 81.3% the previous month.

Figures also show that 52.2% of people urgently referred for breast symptoms where cancer was not initially suspected were seen within two weeks of referral compared with 67.6% in October.

Overall, 93% of people began their first treatment within 31 days of a diagnosis – a figure which has remained fairly consistent.

Diagnostic hubs ‘across country’

The new data was released yesterday (20 January) as Maria Caulfield, MP and the minister for patient safety and primary care, faced questions over UK’s track record on cancer outcomes.

When asked by the Health and Social Care Committee if the rollout of Rapid Diagnostic Centres (RDCs) across England would cover the entirety of the country, Ms Caulfield said that as of October there were 159 live pathways in place, up from 12 in March 2020.

The rollout is targeted at parts of the country with the poorest outcomes, she said.

The five-year RDC programme launched in 2019 and was designed to speed up diagnosis of cancer, including for patients referred by their GP on a suspected cancer pathway.

‘For GPs, they have got an extremely difficult job because people present with all sorts of conditions,’ she said.

Up until recently there have been specific cancer pathways, with ‘vaguer’ symptoms proving challenging to determine where to refer a patient, she added.

‘Having the opportunity to be able to refer into the NHS to get tests done and to exclude or find a diagnosis will really help.’

Patients urged not delay GP appointments

NHS chiefs have urged anyone with worrying signs and symptoms to come forward and not to put off vital checks.

In December the National Audit Office warned that recovering elective and cancer care performance would be a huge and lengthy challenge for the NHS.

A report noted that while NHS cancer services activity largely recovered after the first wave, patients with an urgent GP referral for cancer were more likely to be delayed than before the pandemic.

There have also been concerns about people coming forward with symptoms, with half saying at one point they would delay coming forward because they didn’t want to burden the health service, NHS England noted.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England national clinical director for cancer, said: ‘When coronavirus first emerged, we saw patient numbers drop dramatically as people stayed away because of fear of the virus, or because they didn’t want to burden the NHS, despite experiencing cancer symptoms – but it’s vital people continue to come forward.’

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, said: ‘We know that at various times during the pandemic, some people have decided not to use the NHS for fear of overburdening services or of catching or spreading the virus – but the latest data shows people are now coming forward in record numbers and that GPs are working hard to care for patients and refer those they suspect of having cancer.

‘GPs understand the importance of identifying cancer in a timely way in order to achieve the best health outcomes for patients, so regardless of the intense pressures facing general practice, cancer referral is always taken seriously and treated as a priority.’

A version of this story first appeared on our sister title, Pulse.