A recent study has suggested that a quarter of cancer patients in the UK made at least three visits to their GP before being sent to hospital for tests which correctly diagnosed their illness.
Some were said to have returned repeatedly over a six-month period, only to be sent away with painkillers, antibiotics or drugs for high blood pressure.
Carried out by academics at Cambridge University, this was a significant piece of medical research, as more than 70,000 patients who had completed the Government’s annual cancer experience survey in 2012 and 2013 were questioned.
The results pose serious questions over the state of cancer care in the UK, and crucially, the issue of symptoms not being spotted early enough by GPs, leading to cancer diagnosis coming far too late, on far too many occasions.
Interestingly, it also comes on the back of NHS England announcing a five-year plan – costing £400m a year – to improve cancer care and hopefully help an extra 30,000 cancer patients survive for 10 years.
Currently 280,000 people in England are diagnosed with cancer each year, with only half surviving a decade beyond diagnosis.
The new proposals include the creation of a four-week target for diagnosis from GP referral, and an 80 per cent increase in the number of tests being carried out, including increasing the ability of GPs to order tests directly.
That has to be a positive step, as the key now, and in the future, will be improving the ability of GPs to correctly diagnose cancer as early as possible.
As experts in handling a wide range of medical negligence claims, our team of specialists at Hudgell Solicitors sees many cases where diagnosis could have been made much sooner had cancer been one of the first considerations, and actively looked for.
However, perhaps it has always been the British culture to only consider the worst as the final option.
It is certainly understandable for doctors to be wary of worrying patients unnecessarily, if indeed the cause of their illness was found not to be cancer.
However, of the many clients we have represented, we know all would rather cancer have been considered and tested for earlier, and either ruled out or discovered.
Going forward, it is only by adopting this approach across the board that we will catch it earlier, more regularly.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recently urged GPs to take advantage of new guidance on symptoms that could warn of one of 37 cancers.
It means GPs are able to order more tests which should speed up a diagnosis, such as fast-tracking endoscopy investigations and MRI or CT brain scans tests to bring a faster result. It is a positive step.
It also offers guidance as to what cancers to look for, should a doctors’ initial consideration for what may be causing the illness turn out to be wrong.
Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK and chairman of NHS England’s task force, says the proposed changes could help create a “world class” service over the coming years.
“We have an opportunity to save many thousands of lives from cancer,” he said.
It is an opportunity which simply cannot be missed.