GP appointments for cancer diagnosis could halve under £15m NHS plan

NHS England has announced a £15m fund to usher in 'world-class cancer services', with plans that could halve the number of GP appointments spent on cancer diagnosis by streamlining and speeding up the process.

Plans published on Thursday by the National Cancer Transformation Board will help realise recommendations in last year’s Independent Cancer Taskforce report, which outlined changes the NHS could make to save an extra 30,000 lives per year by 2020.

The ‘initial’ £15m fund will be used to launch trials for multidisciplinary diagnostic centres (MDCs) across six pilot areas, which will run over the next two years and be evaluated in 2017.

It will also help establish a National Diagnostics Capacity Fund, which will be invested ‘to test initiatives to increase capacity and productivity of diagnostic services’.

The plans come just months after GPonline revealed that one in three GPs have had an urgent cancer scan request blocked or downgraded to non-urgent in the past year as hospital trusts struggle to control costs.

The £15m fund will also be used to test the new 'faster diagnosis standard', currently being piloted in five local health communities, which will replace the two-week wait system by ensuring patients referred for testing by their GP get a definitive diagnosis or all-clear within four weeks.

GP cancer diagnosis

The MDC-based pathways will allow GPs to refer patients with non-specific symptoms that they suspect could be cancer.

The trials – held in six areas including London, Greater Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Oxfordshire and Airedale, Wharfedale and Craven – will help inform how the system will be rolled out across the country.

RCGP clinical lead for cancer care Dr Richard Roope told GPonline last year that MDCs could revolutionise the way GPs diagnose cancer – and halve the number of appointments spent unnecessarily referring patients for multiple tests.

They will allow GPs to refer based on symptoms without specifying a particular diagnosis.

He said: ‘Patients come to general practice with symptoms and not a diagnosis. One of the challenges in primary care has always been that, if a patient has vague symptoms like abdominal pain, GPs have to choose whether they are going to refer for upper GI, lower GI, gynaecological or urology tests.

Cancer scans

‘You could investigate one avenue, and if that worked out – great. But if it didn’t, the patient would be referred back to you and you would then have to start again with a second diagnostic pathway.'

MDCs would change this. ‘We would refer our patients with, say, abdominal pain and they would then see a senior doctor or clinician who would arrange the appropriate tests. The patient would get a diagnosis almost on the day.

‘For a GP, the instant benefit is that there’ll be fewer consultations. At the moment, for more complicated cancers, it may take four or five consultations to refer patients. With these changes, GPs may do one round of preliminary tests and refer patients after the second consultation.’

Speaking at the launch of the report, Professor Chris Harrison, national clinical director for cancer at NHS, said: ‘The NHS is seeing 50% more patients with suspected cancer than four years ago and survival rates have never been higher. But there is still more we can do to ensure all people have a consistently good experience of care and support.

‘Work is already well underway to realise the ambitions of the Cancer Taskforce – by working together, we can transform the services and offer a world-class cancer service for everybody.’

Photo: iStock

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