Deaths higher in cancer patients where GPs fail to use early referral

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Deaths are higher in cancer patients whose GPs do not regularly send patients through the two-week urgent referral route for suspected cancer, according to a Cancer Research UK and National Institute for Health Research funded study.

Researchers from King's College London found a clear link between the chance a patient would die, and the likelihood of their GP practice to refer cancer patients to a specialist using the two-week urgent referral route."

Professor Henrik Moller, lead author of the report said:"[If] GP practices which use the two-week route rarely, were to use it more often, this could reduce deaths of cancer patients."

The research - published today in the British Medical Journal examined data from 215,284 English cancer patients.

Death rates increased by 7% in patients from practices which used the two-week urgent referral route least often compared with practices with a typical referral rate.

The urgent two-week referral pathway for patients with suspected cancer was created in England in the early 2000s. The frequency with which GPs use the service varies across England. Lead author

Professor Henrik Moller, epidemiologist at King's College London said: "This study shows the first link between using the urgent referral route and deaths in cancer patients.

"Increasing a GP's cancer awareness and their likelihood of urgently referring cancer patients could help reduce deaths. There's a fine line to tread between using the urgent referral route regularly and using it too much - which the NHS isn't equipped to respond to. But if GP practices which use the two-week route rarely, were to use it more often, this could reduce deaths of cancer patients."

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis, at Cancer Research UK said. "This crucial evidence shows that the earlier a cancer patient is diagnosed the better the chances of survival. Earlier cancer can be treated more effectively with a wider range of treatment options. And tumours can progress if there's a delay in time to diagnosis and starting treatment.

"It's never been clearer that reducing late diagnosis saves lives and this research adds to our understanding of what can be done about it. Cancer Research UK is committed to investing in early diagnosis research to support GPs refer suspected cancer as early as practically possible."

Further reading 

Four in ten female CI claims for breast cancer

NHS misses two cancer targets

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