GPs failing thousands of cancer patients: Alarming toll of victims being sent away THREE times without a diagnosis
Family doctors fail to spot cancer in tens of thousands of patients, a study reveals today. Seven in ten people whose illness is picked up in casualty have had it missed by a GP. An estimated 32,000 of them visited a local surgery three times without their cancer being diagnosed. Women and younger patients were more likely to have their symptoms overlooked, even for common cancers.
The research by Cambridge University, University College London and Public Health England fuels fears that the disease is being detected too late. ‘These are extremely concerning findings as the later breast cancer is diagnosed, the less effective treatment can be,’ said Samia al Qadhi, of Breast Cancer Care. She said the charity’s research showed that a third of patients with incurable breast cancer did not feel doctors had listened to them.
Anna Jewell of Pancreatic Cancer UK said: ‘Sadly these new figures do not come as a surprise – we already know that almost half of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed as an emergency, which usually means their symptoms are more advanced. ‘Patients don’t know that their symptoms could be a sign of pancreatic cancer so they are not visiting their GP. When they do, the disease is not at the forefront of GPs’ minds.’
The study examined 4,647 cancer patients diagnosed in English A&E units in 2010. Their survival chances were far lower than in cases detected through scans or by specialists. Seventy-one per cent had seen their GP – 59 per cent of them once or twice and 41 per cent at least three times. Patients with the most common types of cancer whose symptoms should be obvious were initially misdiagnosed, according to the study in the British Journal of General Practice.
The researchers said the results were not necessarily due to a failure of GPs because some cancers were very difficult to spot. ‘This highlights the need to explore all the reasons why cancers are diagnosed late, including what happens outside GP surgeries,’ said study leader Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos of UCL. ‘Many elderly patients may find it difficult to get to the surgery or have other conditions which would prevent them from seeking an appointment, such as dementia.’ Of the 357,000 new cancer cases in the UK each year, about 78,500 are diagnosed in A&E. If these findings are representative, roughly 32,000 of these patients saw their GP three times or more.
The study did not speculate on why GPs were missing cancer nor why UK survival rates are lower than in the rest of Europe. Experts have suggested it is down to different healthcare systems where patients see specialists immediately. Some health trusts are even offering GPs financial incentives not to refer patients for tests that can diagnose cancer.
Studies have shown that – if the UK matched the European average on cancer – around 10,000 lives would be saved every year. Britain is lagging a decade behind the progress made in France, Italy and Scandinavia. Dr Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK, which funded the 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. ‘GPs need better access to the right tests and referral routes if we want to see this number reduced.’ Judith Brodie of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer said: ‘A bowel cancer patient’s chance of being successfully treated drops dramatically if they are not diagnosed until a late stage so more must be done to ensure the public is aware of the symptoms and how important it is to get them checked out as soon as possible. ‘Knowledge of the disease will also give them the confidence to persevere with their GP if they feel their symptoms are not being taken seriously enough.’
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘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.’