A study in BMJ Open has found that UK GPs are less likely to refer possible cases of cancer and have linked this to low cancer survival.
The researchers gave 2,795 GPs hypothetical scenarios involving possible cases of ovarian, lung and colorectal cancer. GPs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were less likely to refer than doctors in Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden, the study found.
Only one in five UK-based GPs has access to CT and MRI scans, and doctors have longer waiting times than those in other countries, the research showed.
But Dr Andrew Green, chairman of the GPC’s clinical and prescribing subcommittee, said that early and more accurate diagnosis would not be possible until consultation times were made longer.
‘If we are to improve these figures we must be provided with the tools needed to ensure the best service possible, and although that includes rapid access to specialist opinions and investigations, what is really needed is adequate time to spend on consulting with patients,’ he said.
Standard appointments should be 15 minutes long, and GPs must be given ‘ready access to sophisticated investigations’ before cancer care can improve, Dr Green believes.
‘This cannot happen until the proportion of the NHS budget spent on general practice is returned to its historic levels, and the workforce crisis is properly addressed,’ he said.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, acknowledged the ‘difficult job’ GPs do, but said that their gatekeeper role needed to be reviewed.
‘If the UK system means that patients are not being referred for tests or GPs able to get a specialist opinion as necessary, then this can contribute to cancers being diagnosed and treated at a later stage and we urgently need to address this,’ she said.
Dr Richard Roope, RCGP clinical lead for cancer, said that GPs were ‘often criticised for over-referring as well as under-referring’ patients.
‘In order to strike the right balance 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.