According to experts at the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), approximately 5,000 lives could be saved each year in England if GPs adhere to new guidelines on diagnosing cancer.
NICE believe that a new approach to cancer diagnosis is necessary in order to improve the UK’s lagging cancer survival rates compared to the rest of Europe, with the main purpose of the new guidelines being to speed up the referral process, get the patient access to potentially life-saving treatment more quickly and reduce instances of late cancer diagnosis.
It is widely accepted within the medical community that the earlier that most forms of cancer are diagnosed, the greater the chance of survival. And although the situation is improving, it is believed that thousands of lives are lost unnecessarily each year through the late diagnosis of cancer, as well as cancer misdiagnosis. The new guidelines are designed to change that, although cancer charities warn that more funds are needed in order to implement the changes.
Focus on Key Symptoms
The new guidelines are a radical departure from previous recommendations, with GPs now being encouraged to consider cancer much earlier than before and to lower the threshold at which patients are tested for cancer. The guidelines now focus on key symptoms, rather than encouraging doctors to first identify which type of cancer a patient may have and then cross-checking their diagnosis with the known symptoms of that disease.
The recommendations also state that GPs throughout England should be able to arrange some types of cancer test directly themselves, without waiting for the patient to receive an appointment with a specialist. For example, in certain situations GPs will be able to arrange for the patient to receive CT scans and endoscopies without a specialist referral. The experts at NICE believe this will allow medical conditions to be diagnosed more quickly and free up more of cancer specialists’ time.
Christopher Livingston, clinical negligence lawyer at Blackwater Law Solicitors in Essex, said: “At Blackwater Law, we support any move by the NHS that may help in diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage and reduce the incidence of late diagnosis of cancer, at stages of the disease when it is recognised treatment is likely to be less effective. However, any initiative must be properly resourced to give it the best chance of being successful and ultimately saving lives.”
The committee has produced a wealth of information designed to help patients spot the most common signs of cancer so they can seek medical advice more quickly. The guidance also actively encourages GPs to put “safety nets” in place in order to ensure that less obvious cases of cancer – those that are harder to diagnose – are not missed. For example, patients whose symptoms are worrying but not necessarily suggestive of cancer should be given follow-up appointments or advice on when to come back.
New Cancer Guidelines Could Save ‘Thousands’
“Throughout the history of European cancer statistics Britain has lagged behind the best European countries,” said Professor Mark Baker of NICE. “The main reason for that is that people tend to present with a cancer at a more advanced stage. This guideline specifically addresses that shortfall. We estimate it will save about 5,000 lives a year,” he said.
The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) welcomed the changes but warned that there may not be enough capacity to carry out the extra scans and checks, which in turn could result in a backlog and actually lead to longer waiting times for patients. “It would be regrettable if something so well-intentioned resulted in patients being worse off,” said Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP.
Sara Hiom, from Cancer Research UK, said: “We know the strain the NHS is already under and the number of people diagnosed with cancer is increasing – further investment is essential in order to support this much needed shift in investigative testing.” She added: “Research would indicate we do fewer diagnostic tests in this country than comparable countries, but there are a lack of workforce, perhaps a lack of kit, to do those tests, so patients may be missing out because there are delays, backlogs or bottlenecks and this really does need to be addressed.”