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GPs ‘could spot cancer earlier’ with new diagnostic tool

GPs might be in a better position to diagnose cancer earlier and make the right referrals with a ‘tool’ based on past prescriptions and identifying patterns in medication, according to Cancer Research UK-funded scientists who are launching a major research project into the subject.

This research, which is being led by Health Data Insight, Public Health England and the NHS Business Services Authority, will look for patterns in prescriptions, especially in patients with non-specific symptoms that do not obviously indicate cancer.

Small studies from Denmark have found that many lung cancer patients, for example, had a history of being given prescriptions for antibiotics.

Cancer Research UK points out that only about half of people with the most common cancers have ‘red-flag’ symptoms and this is even lower in cancers with poor survival rates such as pancreatic, stomach, ovarian and brain cancer.

The researchers have created an anonymous dataset of nearly all the primary care prescription data – around 80 million prescriptions each month. The researchers will then link this information to data in the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service to look for trends in medications given to patients before they were diagnosed with cancer.

Dr Jem Rashbass, medical director at Health Data Insight, said: ‘We want to develop a tool that helps GPs diagnose cancer earlier in the hope of saving more lives. It can be very difficult for GPs to know which patients to refer for further tests.’

Dr Rashbass added: ‘Large studies like this are only possible because anonymous data on large numbers of cancer patients is available for research through the NHS. Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up.’


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