Risk tool 'to help GPs detect cancer earlier'

GPs should use a bowel cancer risk calculator to improve early diagnosis instead of relying on individual 'red flag' symptoms, researchers have said.

Colon cancer: endoscopic view of a malignant polyp in a patient's colon  (Photo: SPL)
Colon cancer: endoscopic view of a malignant polyp in a patient's colon (Photo: SPL)

Independent analysis of the risk-prediction tool QCancer found it was twice as accurate at detecting bowel cancer as using individual symptoms such as abdominal pain alone.

Researchers writing in the British Journal of Cancer said the tool could help GPs detect and refer potential cases of bowel cancer earlier.

In April, the DH said it was considering trialling use of the risk calculator in GP practices.

The tool was developed by researchers at Nottingham University. It combines seven risk factors for women and nine for men to better predict the chance of a patient having bowel cancer.

These include age, symptoms such as rectal bleeding and lifestyle behaviours such as alcohol consumption.

Now, researchers from the Oxford University have independently verified the performance of the tool.

They tested the calculator on cases of cancer found among the records of 2.1 million patients registered with GP practices in January 2000 to June 2008.

Researchers compared recorded symptoms with the incidence of bowel cancer within the next two years of presentation.

They found QCancer would have identified 71% of colorectal cancers in women and 74% in men.

Conversely, investigation prompted by rectal bleeding alone would have identified only 34% and 40% of bowel cancers respectively. Abdominal pain by itself could have identified only 36% and 31% of cancers respectively.

Study lead Dr Gary Collins of Oxford University said: ‘Our research shows that the QCancer calculator clearly outperforms individual signs and symptoms as a way of predicting whether a patient has bowel cancer.

‘It’s great to see that the government is considering this model along with others to help spot people with cancers that might otherwise go undetected. Ultimately tests like this will be likely to improve early diagnosis of the disease so that patients have the best possible chance of survival.’

Sara Hiom, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘This study highlights a new approach to helping GPs make better decisions about which patients to refer for further tests. Ultimately we hope risk calculators like these could contribute to swifter diagnosis of bowel cancers. Encouraging more people to take up their invitation to bowel screening is also important.’

It has been suggested GPs could integrate the tool into their IT systems to form a list of high-risk patients needing investigation.

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