About a quarter of bowel cancer patients in England are only diagnosed with the disease after an emergency admission to hospital, according to research.
This equates to about 8,000 out of 31,000 patients admitted in a 12-month period, the study found.
These patients are less likely to have surgery than those whose first admission was not an emergency case, according to the report, which looked at bowel cancer records and hospital data.
The finding about diagnosis upon emergency admission is in keeping with research by the National Cancer Intelligence Network about bowel cancer, which is diagnosed in about 31,000 people each year in England and Wales and is the second most common cause of cancer death.
The report suggests that between August 2009 and July 2010, diagnosis upon emergency admission was most common among:
- Older people aged 85 and over - accounting for 47% (1,690) of 3,580 patients of this age;
- More deprived patients - the percentage gradually increased from 22% (1,410) of the 6,550 least deprived to 30% (1,470) of the 4,940 most deprived;
- Women - at 28% (3,820) of 13,570 patients (for men, this figure was 22% (3,870) of 17,240 patients).
The report also shows that, for emergency admission patients, 59% (4,540) had surgical intervention and 52% (3,990) had major surgery.
This is lower than for non-emergency patients who present through other means (such as direct referrals or two-week wait), for whom the percentages were 76% (17,510) and 73% (16,850) respectively.
This is likely to reflect the fact that emergency patients tend to have a more advanced stage of cancer on admission.
The report was commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership and developed by the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of the charity Bowel Cancer UK, said: "It is deeply worrying that so many patients are being diagnosed as an emergency when we know that outcomes are worse.
"There is still more that needs to be done to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer and the need to address symptoms quickly. This must include targeting older people, women and those from deprived communities who have been shown to be the worst affected."
Health Minister Anna Soubry said: "Being first diagnosed via A&E is often too late and the outlook for patients at that point can be more bleak. We want to help the NHS diagnose bowel cancer much earlier by raising public awareness of the symptoms and supporting GPs to assess people more effectively. Our work to help GPs includes giving them better access to key tests for patients.
"This work, along with expanding screening and better treatment, is part of our overall plan to save 5000 additional lives each year by 2015."