Royal College of GPs responds to damning cancer study

Newspaper reports claiming that GPs are failing to refer thousands of patients for cancer tests have been heavily criticised by the Royal College of GPs.

The reports allege widespread GP negligence, claiming that around 32,000 people had visited their local GP 3 times without their cancer being diagnosed, and as many as 7 out of 10 people were only diagnosed once they attended a hospital casualty department.

The reports also stated that patients (women and young people in particular) with obvious symptoms of the most common types of cancer were the victim of misdiagnosis.

The figures were based on a study of 4,647 cancer patients who were diagnosed in English A&E units in 2010. Of this number 71% (3,333) had already seen their GP, and of those 3,333, 1,366 (41%) had seen their GP at least 3 times. It may also be supposed that 29% of those diagnosed in A&E had not consulted their GP with regard to their symptoms

Using these statistics, it was concluded that since 78,500 of the 357,000 new cancer cases every year are diagnosed in A&E it must follow that more than 32,000 patients had visited their GP 3 times without being diagnosed. It would also mean that 103,500 (29%) of those diagnosed with cancer at A&E had not already seen their GP.

Dr Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK, which funded the 2010 study, said:

"We need to continue to increase awareness of cancer signs and symptoms and help break down the barriers preventing people from seeing their GP earlier."

In June 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued new guidelines to help doctors assessing 37 different cancers so they could spot the signs more easily and refer patients more quickly while the new NHS cancer strategy, promised an 80 per cent increase in tests for diseases.

"Soaring demand" blamed

In response to the newspaper reports, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs raised concerns that many patients were finding it difficult to obtain GP appointments due to soaring demand coupled with GP budget cuts stretching the GP workforce to its limits.

Some cancers are also more difficult to spot and the Royal College of GPs has been campaigning for GPs to have better access to new and improved diagnostic tools to support their work. Dr Stokes-Lampard called for the pledges in NHS England's GP Forward View to be delivered. This would mean extra funding and a further 5,000 GPs to ensure that patients receive the quality care they need and deserve.

In a letter to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph she pointed out that 75% of patients found to have cancer are referred after only one or two GP consultations, and that the proportion of cancers diagnosed as an emergency has dropped from 25% to 20% in the last 5 years.

Dr Stokes-Lampard added:

"GPs take their role in diagnosing cancer as early as possible very seriously and we would urge patients who experience any concerning or persistent symptoms to book an appointment with their GP."

It is generally assumed that early detection of cancers lead to improved survival rates, since there are better options for treatment.

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher