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GPs refer more patients than ever for urgent cancer tests

cancer pathway

Over two million patients were referred for an urgent cancer check by GPs last year – the highest ever – according to new NHS England figures. 

NHS England said the rate of urgent cancer referrals – the equivalent of 6,000 patients a day – is encouraging, but more work is needed to meet the goal of catching three-quarters of cancer at an early stage.

Increasing referral rates can be attributed to the 2015 urgent referral guidance for GPs, lower thresholds, and greater public awareness, NHS England said when announcing the figures.

In all, 2.2 million cancer checks were carried out in 2018, up from 1.9 million people seen in 2017.

The number of people receiving treatment for cancer also increased to more than 300,000, NHS England said.

Recent analysis of cancer waiting times by the Nuffield Trust found that more patients are waiting longer than two months to start treatment.

Under plans announced in the NHS Long-Term Plan, GPs will have fewer barriers to making cancer referrals in a bid to catch more cancers earlier.

Proposals include the setting up of rapid diagnostic centres and lung cancer screening.

In November, NHS England announced a major overhaul of cancer screening programmes, with GP experts demanding a closer examination of target cancer screening schemes so that the most appropriate patients benefit.

NHS England’s national director for cancer, Cally Palmer, said: ‘We want to see even more people seeking help when something is not right – catching cancer earlier when it can be treated best is crucial to providing peace of mind for patients and their families and saving more lives.

‘We are rapidly driving forward the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambitions to improve dramatically the experience of millions of people across the country.’

BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘Local systems for 14-day suspected cancer referrals are now well embedded and regularly used by GPs, as these figures illustrate.

‘There is also an increased likelihood of patients presenting with worries about cancer because of wider media reporting.’

But he added: ‘We should not forget though that many patients with cancer have non-specific symptoms and can be referred for specialist investigation or assessment through other clinical pathways, and yet waiting times for these patients are increasing as the NHS struggles to meet overall growing demand.

‘There is an urgent need to address these longer waiting times as well as focusing on cancer referral pathways.’