Cancer is responsible for more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK and it is estimated that one in two people will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. However, early diagnosis of cancer could save up to 5,000 lives each year, in England alone.
The signs and symptoms of cancer may not always be obvious and, as a result, GPs see an average of only eight new cases a year.
To increase the possibility of saving more lives, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has updated and redesigned its guidelines to support GPs in recognising the signs and symptoms of 37 different cancers and refer people for the right tests faster.
This new approach focuses on the symptoms that a patient may experience and go to their GP for, setting out clear tables linking signs and symptoms to possible cancers as well as simple recommendations about which tests to perform and the type of specialist referral that should be made.
It is hoped that this move will make it easier for GPs to diagnose cancers, and has the potential to save thousands of live each year.
Professor Mark Baker, clinical practice director at NICE, said: “The best way to successfully treat cancer is to make an early diagnosis. The sooner the disease is identified, the more likely treatment is to be effective. Earlier diagnoses have the potential to save thousands of lives each year.
“This guideline uniquely amongst of this type presents the evidence on the way that patients present to their GPs. It reflects real life and we expect it to have a major impact on the success rate for cancer in England.”
Dr Steve Hajioff, a director of public health, who chaired the independent group of experts which developed the new guidance, said: “Traditionally, cancer referral guidelines have presented their evidence on a cancer by cancer basis because that’s the way the research is done. However, that does make them very difficult to use if someone has a symptom that’s related to multiple cancers.
“The purpose of this approach is to make it easier to use by primary care clinicians in a busy consulting room so that they don’t have to wade through documents. They can look very quickly at the information to help them make an appropriate decision and so potentially fewer things are missed.
Professor Willie Hamilton, GP and Professor of Primary Care Diagnostics at the University of Exeter, who also helped to develop the new guideline, said: “This guideline is about getting the right patients to the right tests at the right time. It will open the door for smarter testing so that people with cancer will receive their diagnosis much earlier. There is no doubt in my mind that this guideline will save lives.”
Sara Hiom, early diagnosis director at Cancer Research UK, added: “These new guidelines for suspected cancers will give GPs more freedom to quickly refer patients with worrying symptoms – crucial for a disease that can be hard for GPs to spot in primary care. This will mean diagnosing cancers earlier, at a stage when treatment is most likely to be effective, better for patients and ultimately increasing survival.”