A new study has found that early GP referrals are likely to lead to cancer patients surviving longer highlighting the importance of continuing urgent referrals, diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients during the pandemic.

The study by King's College London and funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) analysed 1.4 million cancer patients in England and found that cancer patients from the highest referring GP practices had a lower mortality rate.

Published in the British Journal of General Practice, it found that cancer patients from these same practices were also more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier stage for breast, lung and prostate cancer.

Dr Thomas Round, from King's College London and PHE said: "As a GP, considering a cancer diagnosis is not easy. A typical full time GP would have 8-9 new cancer cases per year but sees many patients who have symptoms which could be due to cancer. The urgent referral, or two-week wait pathway, is very helpful for both patients, with potentially worrying symptoms, and their GPs who can fast track them to have a specialist review or tests. This research shows that GPs are referring substantially more patients with suspected cancer, which is making a real impact in improving cancer outcomes in the NHS."

Urgent referrals for cancer patients are still a priority

The research, which looked at cases of breast, lung, prostrate and colorectal cancers using data from the National Cancer Registry, supports the increases seen in primary care referrals and access to diagnostic tests, which allows more cancers to be diagnosed. This has also led to the number of people diagnosed with cancer following an A&E presentation, who are more likely to have worse outcomes, to drop from one in four to less than one in five.

Dr Round said: "Clearly the current Covid-19 situation is putting a significant strain on health services, including for potentially serious conditions, such as suspected cancer referrals and cancer treatment once diagnosed. This is clearly a worrying time for patients and NHS staff. 

"It is important if patients are experiencing worrying symptoms to contact their GP practice. Whilst the assessments may be different, and NHS capacity is stretched, we are still trying to facilitate urgent two week wait referrals in collaboration with our hospital colleagues. With approximately 450 cancer deaths per day in the UK it's important that we continue urgent referrals, diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients."

This work is in collaboration with PHE's National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS) and uses data that has been provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support. The data is collated, maintained and quality assured by the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service, which is part of Public Health England (PHE).