Quarter Of NHS Cancer Patients Experience Delayed Referrals - And It's Causing Widespread Dissatisfaction

A survey of 60,000 cancer patients has revealed high levels of dissatisfaction with the service they receive from the NHS.

Researchers discovered that 23% of patients had to take more than three trips to the GP to be referred for cancer tests, which made them more likely to be unhappy with the care they received in the long run.

In fact, 39% of those who had experienced referral delays were not satisfied with the support they received from their GP and nurses, compared to 28% of those referred after one or two GP visits.

This, Cancer Research UK believes, can erode confidence in the doctors and nurses who then go on to treat the patients after their late referral.

"This is the first time we’ve had direct feedback from patients on such a large scale to show how the timeliness of their diagnosis colours their experience of the care they later receive," said Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK.

"It’s another good reason to highlight the importance of diagnosing cancer as quickly as possible," she added. "Not just to give patients the best chances of survival, but also to improve their experience of the care they receive throughout their cancer journey.”

The combined study by Cancer Research UK scientists at University College London and the University of Cambridge found that patients who had to see their GP three times before being referred were likely to report negative experiences across 10 of 12 different aspects of their care.

Nearly 20% of these patients were dissatisfied with the way they were told they had cancer, compared to 14% of those referred after fewer visits.

A startling 40% of patients were unhappy with how hospital staff and GPs had worked with each other to provide the best possible care, compared to 33% among those referred promptly.

There was also an increase from 10% to 12% in those who suspected information may have been deliberately withheld from them during treatment.

And a rise from 28% to 32% in patients who lacked confidence and trust in the ward nurses.

Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, a Cancer Research UK scientist at UCL and the study's lead author, said: "This research shows that first impressions go a long way in determining how cancer patients view their experience of cancer treatment.

"A negative experience of diagnosis can trigger loss of confidence in their care throughout the cancer journey.

"When they occur, diagnostic delays are largely due to cancer symptoms being extremely hard to distinguish from other diseases, combined with a lack of accurate and easy-to-use tests. New diagnostic tools to help doctors decide which patients need referring are vital to improve the care experience for even more cancer patients."

Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, added that it is vital for the NHS to now "step up efforts" to ensure potential cancer symptoms are investigated quickly.

But the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, Dr Helen Webberley, tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle that it can be "difficult" for GPs to diagnose cancer as they don't have access to the range of tests available in hospitals.

Additionally, symptoms of cancer are often very similar to "every day symptoms" such as a cough, headache and abdominal pain.

"We don't have access to the range of tests in surgery that are available in hospitals or via paid for routes such as online pharmacies," she explains, "so we rely much more on our clinical judgement, when deciding who needs to be referred, while taking into account the already bulging waiting lists."

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"If we have a very low threshold for deciding who is referred then there will be delays because of the high volume of people waiting for tests, and if we only refer those cases we are really worried about then the diagnosis of those with less obvious symptoms could be delayed," says Dr Webberley.

"GPs have a responsibility to use hospital resources carefully while trying to help patients as much as possible - it is a difficult balance to get right."

She says that it's "vital" that GPs listen carefully to their patients "as they know their bodies best".

"I often hear people saying that something just doesn't feel right, or feels different to their normal cough or tummy ache - this is a really important symptom," she explains.

"Patients need to feel that their GP has listened carefully, examined them properly and addressed all of their concerns.

"We can't get it right 100% of the time, but the real dissatisfaction comes when people feel that their ideas concerns, and expectations were not taken into account and that there was no sense of involvement in what should be joint decision making."

The study has been published in the European Journal of Cancer Care.