GPs need support to tackle lung cancer, warns RCGP

General practice needs investment and better access to technology to drive up early detection of lung cancer, the RCGP has warned.

Consultation: GPs refer 75% of lung cancer cases after one or two visits (Photo: JH Lancy)

The warning came as UK researchers suggested GPs may not be picking up early signs of the disease.

Research published in the BMJ journal Thorax found that almost one in three lung cancer patients died within three months of diagnosis, despite visiting their GP a number of times beforehand.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham analysed more than 20,000 cases of lung cancer, recorded by 444 general practices, over a 13-year period.

Primary care X-ray

They found that patients who died from the disease within three months of diagnosis had been to see their GP more frequently in the months before their diagnosis.

The research also found that the odds of an early death (within three months of diagnosis) were lower among those who had had a chest X-ray in primary care, but rose in tandem with the number of GP consultations they had had.

RCGP cancer lead, Dr Richard Roope, said: ‘Lung cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose in primary care, especially as a key symptom is coughing, which is present with numerous other conditions that GPs see every day.

‘Instead of criticising GPs, we need to invest in general practice to allow us to employ more GPs and support staff and to give GPs more access to technology that could ultimately save our patients’ lives,’ he said.

GPs doing a good job

‘GPs are doing a good job of appropriately referring our patients that we suspect of having cancer and 75% of patients found to have cancer are referred after only one or two GP consultations.’

The researchers accepted that a full-time GP will usually see only one new case of lung cancer every year, and said better use should be made of risk assessment tools and software prompts to help GPs identify and investigate at-risk patients in a timely manner.

In an editorial in Thorax, consultant in respiratory medicine for University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, Dr Michael Peake, agreed that GPs needed better tools to support clinical decision-making to allow them to spot at-risk patients sooner.

Read more: Interview with RCGP cancer lead Dr Richard Roope

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