Cancer patients across England may be denied essential treatment due to their GPs missing symptoms and delaying referrals to specialists, a study has found.
Figures from the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) found that some doctors are referring three times more patients than other GPs to see cancer specialists.
Sarah Woolnough, Executive Director of Policy and Information, Cancer Research UK, said the findings are “very worrying” and the process of referrals and poor practice needs to be addressed.
Official figures found that 1,000 GP practices referred more than 2,550 people per 100,000 but sent fewer than 830 patients per 100,000 for further tests.
The individual GP practice with the highest referral rate – 5,591 patients per 100,000 – was in Sefton, Merseyside; however, one practice in London referred only 89 patients per 100,000.
Unsurprisingly, PCTs areas with the highest referral rates – in the north west and south west – have the highest rates of cancer in England.
The study also found the proportion of patients who were referred that went on to be diagnosed. The ‘conversation rate’ across England was almost 11%. But this again varied and highlighted the fact that some GPs are missing essential symptoms or being overly cautious.
Professor Sir Mike Richards (pictured), National Cancer Director, said that anybody with persistent symptoms should be referred “urgently” to increase chances of survival. “Where differences have been exposed, GPs should consider their referral practices, which will help to drive up standards of care for everyone.”
The study calculated that if cancer survival rates in England matched the European average more than 5,000 lives could be saved each year through earlier diagnosis and better treatment. If survival rates matched the best across Europe, around 10,000 lives a year could be saved.
Professor Richards added that the Government has invested more than £450m to achieve early diagnosis rates and to support GPs to assess and diagnose cancer symptoms better as part of its cancer strategy.