by Ryan Blake, Medical Negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell

A study led by the University of Exeter, working with University College London, and funded by Cancer Research UK has found that six out of 10 patients in England with key symptoms indicating possible cancer did not receive an urgent referral for specialist assessment within two weeks, as recommended in clinical guidelines.

Early diagnosis key to beating cancer

The study also found that of those patients who were eventually referred, nearly four per cent were subsequently diagnosed with cancer within the next 12 months. The issue is, that for cancer treatment to be effective early diagnosis and prompt treatment is crucial to survival chances and it has been estimated that every four-week delay in cancer treatment increases the risk of death by 10 per cent.

Will Covid-19 make cancer diagnosis rates worse?

Worryingly, the researchers studied records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, as well as data on visits to hospital and cancer registration data between 2014 and 2015. Knowing that the effect of covid-19 has seen many clinics and appointments to be postponed, is this position now likely to be even worse?

Additionally, the charity Breast Cancer Now has warned that almost 12,000 women could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer after missing out on NHS screening because of the pandemic. This is on the back of a referral for a breast lump being one of the highest referrals made by GPs, at 68 per cent.

Concerns need addressing urgently

In an effort to address the issue there are calls for “better access to diagnostic tools in the community and additional training to use them and interpret the results, so that better informed referrals can be made.” 

This surely has to be something that is done to help rectify this worrying concern. However, the researchers found that many patients were attending with “red flag” symptoms such as blood in the urine, breast lump and problems swallowing, to name a few, and the referrals were either not being made by the GPs or the services for testing were not well resourced. 

Either way, it is clear that what was a worrying concern pre-pandemic is surely going to be worse now and needs to be addressed urgently.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and their families following a cancer diagnosis at our dedicated cancer claims section.