NHS cancer diagnosis times fall

November 14, 2011

Posted by: Suzanne Trask


People with cancer are being diagnosed more quickly in the NHS, suggests new research presented at the National Cancer Research Institute cancer conference this week.

In 2001-2 bowel cancer was on average diagnosed 96 days after patients first reported a symptom to a GP. This dropped to 75 days in 2007-8. For oesophageal cancer, the average time to diagnosis fell from 59 days to 48 days; it fell from 63 days to 52 days for pancreatic cancer.

Average time to diagnosis also fell for breast, stomach and lung cancers, but less significantly. Breast cancer times to diagnosis fell by two days to 25 days, stomach cancer diagnosis times from 88 days to 77 days and lung cancer diagnosis times from 106 to 102 days.

The data was taken from the General Practice Research Database on more than 14,400 patients aged 40 or over who had been diagnosed with any of the six different cancers and who had previously shown potential cancer symptoms.

Between 2001 and 2008 the NICE referral guidance for suspected cancer cases was published, providing GPs with details of symptoms that should prompt them to send patients for further tests. Dr Richard Neal, lead researcher based at Bangor University, said that the reduction in waiting times could, in part, be due to this guidance. However, he added that there is “considerable variation between cancers”, with diagnostic intervals higher in those cancers which are more difficult to diagnose and for patients presenting with symptoms that did not qualify for an urgent referral (patients given an urgent referral must be seen by a specialist within two weeks, but those given a routine referral are likely to wait longer).

“Diagnostic intervals remain long in most cancers, with considerable potential for further reduction,” he said. “In particular, the diagnostic intervals for the ten per cent of patients who are diagnosed most slowly remain very long for most cancers. And we do not fully know the effect of the reduction of diagnostic intervals on improvements in stage at diagnosis and long term survival.”

Late diagnosis is often cited as a major cause of England’s poorer cancer survival rates when compared with many other countries. The Rarer Cancer Forum has warned that the patients it represents are experiencing “unacceptable” delays in diagnosis, with more than one in four patients with a rare cancer first diagnosed with a cancer that has already spread.

A recent report by the National Cancer Intelligence Network found that more than one in four patients with a rare cancer were first diagnosed following an emergency, equating to 29,500 patients. More common cancers are much more likely to be diagnosed following a referral to a specialist by a GP.

Private medical insurance providers now offer products aimed specifically at people happy to receive treatment in the NHS but concerned about securing quick access to diagnostics when they suspect cancer.

Suzanne is a Partner and is head of the clinical negligence department.

Posted by: Suzanne Trask

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