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Thousands of cancer cases diagnosed in emergency departments

Thousands of people diagnosed with cancer in emergency departments every year have visited their GP three times or more with symptoms, research shows.

Thousands of people diagnosed with cancer in emergency departments every year have visited their GP three times or more with symptoms, research shows


A high proportion of older men were found to have never visited their GP – despite
red flag symptons for cancer. Picture: Alamy

The most comprehensive study to date found that 71% of all patients diagnosed as an emergency had seen their GP at least once with symptoms that turned out to be cancer. The remainder had never visited their GP.

In a new study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, the authors analysed 2010 data from 4,647 people diagnosed in emergency department (EDs).

They found those patients who had never been to their GP tended to be older, male and living in the most deprived regions of England.

University College London lead researcher Georgios Lyratzopoulos said: ‘These findings tell us that some patients diagnosed as an emergency might not be acting on “red flag” symptoms which could have prompted them to visit their GP.

‘There's also a host of other factors that may be at play. For example, many elderly patients may find it difficult to get to the surgery or have other conditions which would prevent them from seeking an appointment, such as dementia.’

Of the group that did see their GP with symptoms, 41% had sought help three or more times – while 59% had seen their GP once or twice.

Common issues

Some of these had difficult-to-spot cancers, such as lung cancer or multiple myeloma, and tended to be younger or female, but also included people with common cancers such as breast, bowel and prostate cancer.

People who are diagnosed with cancer as an emergency have a worse prognosis than those diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said data showed that 22% of people diagnosed with cancer each year were an emergency case.

Cancer Research UK head of health information Julie Sharp said: ‘We need to continue to increase awareness of cancer signs and symptoms and help break down the barriers preventing people from seeing their GP earlier.’

Better access needed

Dr Sharp added that GPs needed better access to the right tests and referral routes to see the number reduced.

Royal College of General Practitioners chair Helen Stokes-Lampard said the proportion of cancers diagnosed as an emergency was dropping and more patients were being diagnosed at an earlier stage.


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