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Cancer awareness campaign ‘did not increase detection rates’, says DH report

A major publicity campaign urging patients to see their GP earlier if they have symptoms of cancer is unlikely to have any significant impact on cancer referrals or diagnoses, Government figures suggest.

A Department of Health evaluation reveals their £9 million national awareness campaign was based on pilots that showed no significant increase in the numbers of cancers detected, compared with areas where there was no campaign.

The awareness campaign focuses on encouraging earlier diagnosis of breast, lung and bowel cancer and was launched by the DH earlier this year.

The campaign has adverts running on billboards, buses and local newspapers, urging patients to present to their GP if they have a cough lasting three weeks, but has been criticised by some cancer leads as unhelpful.

Data from local pilot projects in 76 PCTs in 2010/11 was linked with a non-significant 9% rise in two-week wait referrals for lung cancer, compared with a 7% rise in referrals over the same period seen in 73 ‘control' areas, where the publicity campaign was not run.

Similar figures were found for the bowel cancer campaign where there was a non-significant 16% rise in areas with local awareness campaigns, but a 13% in control areas.

The awareness campaigns also had no significant effect on the number of cancers detected. There was a 6% rise in bowel cancer and a 4% rise in lung cancers detected in areas with the awareness campaign, but these were not statistically significant increases compared with control areas.

Figures for the breast cancer awareness campaigns were not calculated.

The report concluded: 'The data appear to show no significant impact on the number of cancers diagnosed via the two-week wait or the percentage conversions.

‘This suggests that some of the additional referrals observed during periods when projects were "live" subsequently led to a cancer diagnosis but that others did not.'

Dr Kiran Singh, a GP in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and cancer lead for NHS Warwickshire – one of the areas that trialed the publicity campaign - said the data was ‘surprising'.

She said: ‘The general feeling among clinicians is that we do see an increase in people coming in after such campaigns.'

She added that with 20% of the population unable to name a single cancer sign or symptom, a more global awareness drive linked with lifestyle advice on how to cut your risk of the disease would perhaps be more helpful in the long term.

But Dr Dermot Ryan, a GPSI in endoscopy in Loughborough, Leicestershire, said ‘ill thought out campaigns' simply cultivated the fears of the worried well.

He said: ‘I have patients who are referred with absolutely no likelihood of cancer and all it does is clog up the two-week wait.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said: 'This initial evaluation is from only the first year of the programme, and we have always anticipated that full impact will be seen after a few years. We will learn from and continue to improve the campaigns.'


Lung cancer:

  • Of 228 extra referrals in 19 projects, there were an extra 28 cancers diagnosed
  • No change in diagnosis rate compared with previous year

Bowel cancer:

  • Of 624 extra referrals across 12 projects, five extra cancers were diagnosed
  • No change in diagnosis rate compared with previous year