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Quarter of cancer patients had to visit GP three times before diagnosis

A new study has revealed that almost a quarter of cancer patients had to make at least three visits to their GP before being sent to hospital for tests that diagnosed their illness.

The research – published in the European Journal of Cancer Care – was undertaken by academics at Cambridge University who studied the experiences of more than 70,000 patients. They found that a total of 23% had been seen by their GP three or more times before being referred to hospital for further scans, blood tests or investigations which diagnosed the illness.

Some returned repeatedly over a six-month period only to be sent away with painkillers, antibiotics or drugs for high blood pressure. One in seven said that when the cancer was eventually discovered, their doctor broke the news in an “insensitive” manner, and a further one in three said their GP failed to offer enough support.

David Sawers, writing in Health Insurance Daily, quotes lead author Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, who is based at University College London and Cancer Research UK, as saying: “I don’t think it’s the fault of anyone in particular but it is more down to a lack of science and the need to have better tests.”

The study comes in the wake of the recent announcement of a new strategy by NHS England’s cancer taskforce aimed at improving cancer care. Figures released in May showed that more than 21,000 people had not been treated within 62 days of their cancer diagnosis in the last financial year. According to NHS targets, 85% of cancer patients should be treated within 62 days of being urgently referred by their GP, but just 83.4% were seen on time in 2014-15.

While survival rates have been improving, England still lags behind some of the best performing countries, and the new study suggests that lack of understanding on the part of GPs is also partly to blame. In July, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) called for GPs to receive better training to improve early diagnosis and referral of melanoma in the light of a rising number of legal complaints. The MDU, which handles legal complaints, received on average seven melanoma-based claims per year between 1996 and 2000, but for the period 2008-2012 this figure jumped to 15. 85% of cases were against GPs.

Troels Jordansen, Managing Director of Check4Cancer commented: “The incidence of cancer has steadily risen in recent years, to the extent that one in two people born after 1960 are now expected to suffer the disease at some point in their lives. This means more people than ever are turning up at GPs surgeries with undiagnosed cancers. As the name ‘general practitioner’ suggests, however, GPs are not cancer specialists. This is one of the reasons we established Check4Cancer: to make cancer-specific checks – designed and implemented by world-leading specialists in the field – more widely available. These may also be offered in the workplace as a benefit, targeting groups most at risk of particular forms of cancer, which means cases can be caught even before symptoms arise. This can take some of the pressure off GPs – but most importantly, can help to save lives by detecting the cancer earlier.”

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