Improved GP access to diagnostics key to four-week NHS cancer plan

GPs must have direct access to cancer diagnostics to ensure patients are diagnosed with the disease or have definitively it ruled out within four weeks of referral to help drive earlier diagnosis, experts have urged.

Consulting room: GPs need better access to diagnostic scans (Photo: Robert Johns/UNP)
Consulting room: GPs need better access to diagnostic scans (Photo: Robert Johns/UNP)

The recommendations form one of six major ‘strategic priorities’ laid out by the Independent Cancer Taskforce to lead the NHS towards ‘world-class cancer outcomes’ and improved cancer survival by 2020.

The report aims for 95% of patients referred for testing by a GP to be definitively diagnosed with cancer or have the disease ruled out within four weeks.

Although the current system dictates that patients who are urgently referred by their GP see a specialist within two weeks, the report highlights that there is no guideline for when patients can expect to receive their results.

The plan has been launched to help tackle the rising number of cancer cases. Diagnoses are expected to reach new highs of 300,000 a year by 2020 and more than 360,000 by 2030 in England.

Cancer survival up

Latest available figures from 2013/14 place the current figure at 280,000. As many as one in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives.

The rise in cases has coincided with improved survival rates, but the ever-increasing number of cases – largely driven by an ageing population – threatens to pile ‘unprecedented pressure’ on current NHS cancer services, the cancer taskforce warned.

Other recommendations include a ‘radical upgrade’ in prevention and public health to further tackle smoking and obesity rates, improved post-treatment support and ‘clearer expectations’ for how cancer services should be commissioned.

RCGP chairwoman Dr Maureen Baker welcomed the report. She said: ‘The Taskforce report outlines a number of recommendations, which if implemented properly – and resourced appropriately – have the potential to save thousands of lives.

Better GP access to tests

‘We have a severe shortage of family doctors and the access we currently have to diagnostic tools is completely inadequate, so we particularly welcome the drive to give GPs better access to relevant scanners – something that the college has long been calling for.

‘Anything that can be done to lower patients’ anxiety and any undue distress when they have – or might have – cancer should be encouraged, so we also support the aspiration to provide patients with their test results within four weeks.’

Dr Richard Roope, RCGP cancer lead and Cancer Research UK GP lead, warned: ‘The health system is about to face the "perfect storm" – an ageing and growing population and worsening lifestyles.

‘But we now have an unprecedented opportunity to change society’s attitudes and experience of cancer and ultimately improve survival. If both the NHS and the public at large don’t seize this moment and change, we’ll be overwhelmed in the coming years with more people being diagnosed with more cancers, and diagnosed too late.’

Six ‘strategic priorities’

  • A radical upgrade in prevention and public health

  • A national ambition to achieve earlier diagnosis

  • Patient experience on a par with clinical effectiveness and safety

  • Transformation in support for people living with and beyond cancer

  • Investment to deliver a modern high-quality service

  • Overhauled processes for commissioning, accountability and provision

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