A new study published in the UK has found that tens of thousands are diagnosed with late-stage cancer despite repeated visits to family doctors, who failed to spot the symptoms in time.

The research, which analysed the medical records of 4,637 people diagnosed in A&E, revealed that 71% of the patients had consulted their GP regarding their symptoms.

Judith Brodie, acting chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, said that the figures were “concerning” as a patient’s chances for successful cancer treatment “drops dramatically if they are not diagnosed until a late stage”.

Cancer patients are not being taken seriously

Overall, almost a quarter of cancer patients diagnosed in A&E had initially consulted their GPs at least three times. Those who had not been consulted tended to be older, male and/or from more deprived backgrounds.

31% of the patients who had consulted a GP three times or more were diagnosed with breast cancer while 41% were diagnosed with bowel cancer.

“More must be done to ensure that the public is aware of the symptoms and how important it is to get them checked out as soon as possible,” said Brodie. “Knowledge of the disease will also give them the confidence to persevere with their GP if they feel their symptoms are not being taken seriously enough."

However, patients face the danger of not having their concerns taken seriously by healthcare professionals, as well as difficulty in securing medical consultations.

Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, revealed that there are “women and men who tell us how incredibly distressing it is not to be taken seriously when they've found a possible symptom.” According to her, almost a third of those diagnosed with incurable secondary breast cancer felt that prior to diagnosis, physicians had not taken their concerns about being unwell seriously.

GPs need improved diagnostic tools to help them identify cancers

Data from Cancer Research UK shows that 22% of those diagnosed with cancer annually are emergency cases. This amounts to approximately 78,000 people in total, with over 23,000 having visited their doctor at least three times.

The researchers concede that GPs were most likely to miss cancers that were harder to diagnose, such as multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and lung cancer. Yet, more common tumours were also overlooked, such as prostate, breast and bowel cancer, especially when the patient was of a younger age than usually expected.

With the UK’s healthcare system under financial pressure, the NHS has resorted to shifting its resources to sustain the system. Last month, NHS England admitted that it was likely that waiting times for patients in need of hip, knee and other non-urgent operations would lengthen even more in order to prioritise cancer services.

Still, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) pointed out that among the number of overall new cases of cancer, the emergency diagnoses have dropped by 5% in the past five years, meaning that more patients are being diagnosed at an earlier stage.

“Family doctors would be helped by increased access to new and improved diagnostic tools to help them identify cancers that are more difficult to spot,” said Stokes-Lampard. MIMS

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