Lack of referrals for cancer leads to more deaths

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Deaths are higher in cancer patients in England whose GPs do not regularly send patients through the two-week urgent referral route for suspected cancer, according to a Cancer Research UK and National Institute for Health Research-funded study.

Data published in the British Medical Journal examined data from 215,284 English cancer patients and researchers from King’s College London found a clear link between the chance a patient would die, and the likelihood of their GP practice to refer cancer patients to a specialist using the two-week urgent referral route.

Death rates increased 7% in patients from practices which used the two-week urgent referral route least often compared with practices with a typical referral rate.

The two-week referral pathway for patients with suspected cancer was created in England in the early 2000s, CR UK stated, noting that the frequency with which GPs use the service and the impact on cancer survival of referring cpatients to specialists via this route has not been previously measured.

Lead author Henrik Moller of King’s College London, said: “There’s a fine line to tread between using the urgent referral route regularly and using it too much – which the NHS isn’t equipped to respond to. But if GP practices which use the two-week route rarely, were to use it more often, this could reduce deaths of cancer patients.”

Sara Hiom, CR UK’s director of early diagnosis, said that “this crucial evidence shows that the earlier a cancer patient is diagnosed the better the chances of survival. Earlier cancer can be treated more effectively with a wider range of treatment options [and] tumours can progress if there’s a delay in time to diagnosis and starting treatment.