GPs urged to refer more via two-week cancer pathway to reduce deaths

GP practices have been urged to increase use of the two-week cancer pathway, after a study found that low referral rates through the scheme were linked to higher death rates in patients.

GP consultation: two-week pathway saves lives
GP consultation: two-week pathway saves lives

Research published in the BMJ found that death rates for cancer patients were 7% higher in areas where the pathway was used the least often compared with the average referral rate.

Data compiled from 215,284 patients showed ‘a clear link’ between patient survival and the frequency with which GPs at a practice used the pathway, said the King’s College London researchers.

The two-week wait referral pathway was created in the early 2000s. But it looks unlikely to survive into the next contract, with the scheme set to be superseded by the four-week NHS cancer plan.

Laid out in the Independent Cancer Taskforce, the overhauled plans will see all patients given a guaranteed definitive diagnosis within four weeks of their GP referral, and will become the new gold standard target in cancer diagnosis.

GP cancer role

The changes will see GPs take on an expanded role in cancer prevention and treatment, and aims to allow GPs to refer based on symptoms rather than diagnosis, which could slash appointment times and streamline the referral system.

Lead author Professor Henrik Moller said: ‘This study shows the first link between using the urgent referral route and deaths in cancer patients.

‘Increasing a GP’s cancer awareness and their likelihood of urgently referring cancer patients could help reduce deaths. There’s a fine line to tread between using the urgent referral route regularly and using it too much – which the NHS isn’t equipped to respond to. But if GP practices which use the two-week route rarely, were to use it more often, this could reduce deaths  of  cancer patients.’

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said. ‘It’s never been clearer that reducing late diagnosis saves lives and this research adds to our understanding of what can be done about it. Cancer Research UK is committed to investing in early diagnosis research to support GPs refer suspected cancer as early as practically possible.’

Photo: JH Lancy

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