Nearly half of patients with ‘red flag’ cancer symptoms don’t contact GP for six months

·3 min read
A consultant studying a mammogram
A consultant studying a mammogram

Half of people with possible cancer symptoms do not contact their GPs for six months, according to a survey.

The Cancer Research UK survey found 50 per cent of people who experienced a possible cancer symptom, and 45 per cent with a “red flag” sign, did not contact their doctor within half a year.

Red flag cancer symptoms include, but are not limited to, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, or a new or unusual lump.

Picking up symptoms early can mean patients need less treatment and improve their survival rates.

For example, nine in 10 bowel cancer diagnoses picked up at stage one will survive five years or more, compared with one in 10 picked up at stage four.

GPs can refer patients with suspected cancer symptoms for diagnostic tests and treatment. Under current guidelines, they should be seen within two weeks of a referral.

In the survey of 2,500 people, 48 per cent who were experiencing red flag symptoms said they did contact their GP within half a year, compared with the 45 per cent who did not.

However, of the 48 per cent, nearly a quarter - 24 per cent - only made an appointment after contacting their practice more than once. A fifth - 19 per cent - tried to contact their practice but could not get through or could not get an appointment.

The research also found differences by socioeconomic status, with those from higher backgrounds more likely to be successful in making an appointment (81 per cent), compared with those from a lower socioeconomic group (74 per cent).

Those from a lower socioeconomic background were also less likely to return to their GP if the symptom persisted (48 per cent), compared to three-fifths (60 per cent) of those from higher backgrounds.

‘Worrying to see’

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Spotting cancer early is vital if more people are to survive, and the first step in that process is getting help for a possible cancer symptom. It’s really worrying to see such a large gap in accessing services between the UK’s most and least deprived groups.

“Earlier this year, the Government announced among its top priorities were improving early diagnosis of cancer and tackling health disparities.

“Cancer must remain a top priority and with the upcoming Health Disparities White Paper and 10 Year Plan for England, the new Health and Social Care Secretary has a huge opportunity to transform cancer survival with a clear and strong plan that works for all.”

Separately, an Oxford University study reported that remote consultations could hinder doctors’ abilities to pick up signs of cancer.

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, said doctors could miss “subtle clues that could point to serious illness like cancer”.

The authors added: “Not having the patient in front of them could prevent the GP from seeing the full picture of their condition or make the use of clinical intuition difficult.”