NHS England has launched a new initiative to improve cancer survival rates by ensuring an early diagnosis of an extra 10% of cancer patients. This would mean than 8,000 more patients would survive for five years after diagnosis.

A recent study by Macmillan Cancer Support predicts that a record 2.5 million people will be living with a cancer diagnosis in the UK in 2015. An increase of a third in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer over the next 15 years is also projected.

Currently, around 25% of cancer diagnoses are made too late and, as pressures on NHS services continue to rise, it is feared that the number of late cancer diagnoses will also increase.

The three main reasons why there are so many cases of late diagnosis are: patients not recognising symptoms and seeking early medical advice; failures on the part of primary care professionals to recognise the symptoms and to make appropriate specialist referrals; and problems with the administrative system for referrals resulting in "delayed" appointments or "lost" referrals. However, it is well known that an early diagnosis is essential to ensure that a patient receives optimum benefit from treatment and to improve survival rates.

The new initiative includes the following proposals:

  • A system to enable patients to book their own appointments directly with a hospital diagnostic service or testing unit instead of going to see their GP first
  • Offering patients different types of cancer tests in the same place, on the same day
  • Using community pharmacists to fast-track patients when recurring cancer symptoms are suspected
  • GPs sending patients directly for specific tests, without having to refer to a specialist.

Naomi Holland, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, comments: "Unfortunately, too many patients are still being diagnosed late which can have a significant detrimental impact on their prognosis and options for treatment.

“We believe that this initiative is a step in the right direction as it will provide patients with more autonomy and give them direct access to the diagnostic facilities without first seeking advice from their GP. We see too many cases where the GP’s reassurance and lack of action for patients with cancer have resulted in significant delays in diagnosis. There also needs to be more public education about symptoms so that patients can seek medical advice as soon as possible if they are worried.”