GPs should urge patients to book appointments for cancer 'red flags'

GPs should take part in public health initiatives to make sure that patients don't avoid seeing them about worrying cancer symptoms, the RCGP's cancer lead has said.

Consultation: cancer red flag warning (Photo: JH Lancy)
Consultation: cancer red flag warning (Photo: JH Lancy)

Patients are reluctant to see their GP for persistent cancer symptoms because they ‘don’t want to make a fuss’ or take up their doctor’s time, a Cancer Research UK study found.

Researchers interviewed 48 patients from London who had experienced cancer ‘alarm’ symptoms such as changes in bowel and bladder activity, a persistent cough, or a sore that did not heal.

Many patients felt their symptoms didn’t warrant medical attention, with one respondent saying: ‘If you go to the doctor too much, it's seen as a sign of weakness or that you are not strong enough to manage things on your own.’

‘This [attitude] could be difficult to address in public education campaigns, but could perhaps be tackled at GP level,’ the authors wrote in the BJGP.

Good communication

Dr Richard Roope, the RCGP cancer lead and Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, believes doctors should assure patients that they are not wasting GP time.

He told GP: ‘It’s a question of having good communication skills and listening to people’s apprehensions.’

‘They can be concerned about wasting a GP’s time. But if you see them early, there’ll be fewer consultations in the long run. So actually, addressing symptoms early saves GPs’ time - and in most cases, early diagnosis also costs less to treat.’

Promoting awareness

Dr Roope believes that there is a still an atmosphere of ‘fatalism’ surrounding a potential cancer diagnosis, despite half of cancer patients now surviving for at least 10 years after receiving a diagnosis.

‘We want to get this number up to 75%, and the way to achieve that is to get earlier diagnosis, which is part of the Be Clear on Cancer Campaign,’ he said. ‘The message is: If you’ve got a worrying symptom, see your GP about it.’

The latest Be Clear on Cancer Campaign is urging patients to see the doctor for persistent heartburn lasting for three or more weeks. Only 55% of patients would visit their doctor about this, a Public Health England survey found.

Dr Roope says that GPs can display campaign posters in their waiting rooms to increase awareness among their patients.

‘One of the problems is educating the public as to what medics regard as red flag symptoms, but it’s also about making sure they can address it early and see a GP about it,’ he said.

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