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GPs promised software to aid cancer diagnosis

By Lilian Anekwe

The Department of Health has promised to provide GPs with a simple computer-based tool to help them spot patients with early cancer symptoms.

The tool – which EMIS, the largest provider of GP IT systems has already expressed an interest in – will assess common symptoms such as weight loss and fatigue and assign a patient a cancer risk score.

A GP could then decide on whether the refer a patient for further investigation.

The Government has made several pledges to cut deaths from cancer in the UK, and will use GPs to spearhead their plans to improve early diagnosis of some of the most difficult cancers to detect, including bowel, lung and cervical cancer.

In an interview with The Guardian Sir Mike Richards, the Government's cancer tsar, said: ‘The benefit of this will be that GPs will know who should be investigated and who shouldn't. It will also help patients to know that whether they are being reassured, or referred, or getting a test, that is the right thing to do.'

The pilots will be based on cancer risk tools developed by Dr Willie Hamilton, a GP in Exeter and a researcher on cancer diagnosis.

Dr Hamilton's risk tool, called the Cancer Prediction in Exeter (CAPER) tool, assigns points to each of six signs and symptoms, ranging from 10 points for diarrhoea to 30 points for a haemoglobin score of between 10 and 11.9.

A threshold of 35 points or more had a sensitivity of 69% and a specificity of 77% – which the researchers concluded 'equated to a risk of colorectal cancer of around 2% if used in the whole primary care population with a soft symptom'.

He told Pulse that some elements of the tool were already ‘quite advanced', but that it would be several years before a tool was available in every general practice.

‘The current position is that we do hope to create computer-assistance for GPs, but it's nowhere near oven-ready. The risk side of it is quite advanced and it will almost certainly be based on the scoring systems I've produced.

‘Several parties are interested in moving on to the next stage, of computerisation. A time frame of five years seems fair enough.'

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