Patients will be able to self-refer themselves for cancer diagnostics without needing to go through GPs as part of NHS England’s new strategy for tackling cancer, which GP leaders said could ‘undermine GPs’ gatekeeper role’.
As part of NHS England’s early diagnosis programme announced over the weekend, it will pilot initiatives to offer patients the option to self-refer for diagnostic tests, lower referral thresholds for GPs and introduce multi-disciplinary diagnostic centres where patients can have several tests in the same place on the same day.
It will also set up a taskforce to develop a five-year action plan for cancer services based on the pilots that will include representatives from the RCGP, as well as Macmillan Cancer Support, Public Health England and local councils.
The initiatives will be piloted across more than 60 sites around the country, and they could be implemented from 2016/17, NHS England said.
This comes as NICE published draft guidelines that lowered the risk threshold for which potential cancer symptoms should be referred to diagnostic centres and specialists.
Pulse has already reported that GPs are having urgent cancer referrals bounced back by secondary care, and GP leaders warned that this move could increase the pressure on diagnostics centres, as well as undermining GPs’ role as gatekeeper.
NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said that NHS England’s plans could save 8,000 lives a year.
He said: ‘Cancer survival rates in England are at an all-time high, but too many patients are still being diagnosed late – up to one in four only when they present in A&E.
‘So it’s time for a fresh look at how we can do even better – with more focus on prevention, earlier diagnosis and modern radiotherapy and other services so that over the next five years we can save at least 8,000 more lives a year.
But Dr Kailash Chaand, deputy chair of the BMA and a retired GP in Lancashire, warned that this could undermine GPs’ role as gatekeepers.
He said: ‘There are two issues in this. Fiirstly, who is going to benefit from this? If it benefits patient outcomes, then that is good. But anyone who has a headache for three days might think it is a brain tumour. Overall the whole appointments systems for diagnostics will get messed up. The total outcomes will be limited.
‘Secondly, for the past 10-15 years, the GP role as a gatekeeper has been undermined, with the likes of walk-in centres. This is now going full steam. I won’t be surprised if politicians start saying we don’t need GPs.’
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said that she welcomed the move, but said the college will look at the proposals to self-refer.
She said: ‘An average GP might see eight new cases of cancer for every 8,000 patient consultations and 75% of referrals made after just one or two GP consultations lead to a positive diagnosis.
‘However, there is always more that can be done and the early diagnosis programme to improve cancer outcomes, is particularly welcome – as is the proposal to create diagnostic centres that could do multiple tests in a single day.
‘We are prepared to look at all the proposals, but in the case of self-referral we would need to understand how it could work effectively without diverting resources from other services.’