Don't be alarmed by media reports on cancer referrals

I AM sure your readers will have been alarmed by recent reports in the national media about GPs and the apparent failure to refer patients with suspected cancer.

In 2010, more than 300,000 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer, the commonest types being breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancer. About one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer at sometime during their lifetime.

This needs to be seen in the context of more than 300,000,000 patient consultations with GPs every year.

More than 50 per cent of patients diagnosed with cancer will survive more than five years. These survival rates have improved significantly in most types of cancers over the last 10 years. A contributory factor to this was the introduction of “fast track” referrals, which means that if a GP suspects a patient has cancer and refers them via this route patients will usually be seen in hospital within two weeks. Nine out of ten patients who are referred via “fast track” turn out not to have cancer.

Cancer can present in many different ways and frequently patients have vague symptoms such as tiredness, a cough, feeling unwell or even bloating, which makes the diagnosis of cancer complex.

The national media have assumed that the variability in referral rates directly reflects the competence of the GPs. The truth is more complex than this and will depend on many factors including age, sex, the type of cancer and how late the patient presents to the GP.

If a practice has significantly different referral patterns from other local practices then they need to reflect on these and see if there are any reasonable explanations.

Your readers can do a number of things to reduce their risks as far as cancer is concerned.

If you have symptoms that you believe might mean you have cancer discuss this with your GP.

National screening programmes aim to detect cancer at an early stage and these include cervical, breast and bowel cancer. I would encourage your readers to participate, if invited, in any of these screening programmes.

General practice in the UK has been shown repeatedly by international researchers to be of high quality and among the best in the world. This has been confirmed in several recent comparative studies with other countries.

DR NIGEL WATSON, Wessex Local Medical Committees Ltd

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