Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that 29% of emergency cancer admissions had had no prior consultations with a GP, while 23% had consulted a GP more than three times.
The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, asked over 4,600 patients who presented as emergencies for cancer what prior contact they had with their GP.
Researchers said the findings underlined the importance of public health education campaigns aimed at patients to raise awareness and behaviour about potential cancer symptoms.
Late diagnoses tended to be most common in older patients and people from more socioeconomically deprived backgrounds.
Brain, renal and endometrial cancers were the most likely to results in emergency presentations without prior consultation.
‘Contrary to suggestions that emergency presentations represent missed diagnoses, about one third of emergency presenters have no prior GP consultations,’ the authors concluded.
‘Males, older patients, and the most deprived emergency presenters were more likely to report no prior consultations, possibly reflecting a higher concentration of practical, cognitive, or emotional barriers to presentation in these patient groups.’
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘75% of patients found to have cancer are referred after only one or two GP consultations, and in the last five years the proportion of cancers diagnosed as an emergency has dropped from 25% to 20%, and a higher proportion of patients are being diagnosed at an earlier stage of the disease.
‘However, as this study shows, there are still some patients who seem to be missing or ignoring worrying symptoms until they are severe enough to send them to A&E. They are not seeing their family doctor at all, and are instead being diagnosed at a later stage as an emergency, which is known to reduce the chances of a good outcome.
‘Family doctors would be helped by increased access to new and improved diagnostic tools to help them identify cancers that are more difficult to spot, and this is something that the RCGP has long been calling for.’