GPs are 'slower on cancer tests'
GPs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are less likely to immediately refer people with possible cancer for tests or to a specialist than those in comparable countries, according to a survey.
Cancer survival is also higher in the likes of Australia, Canada and Sweden because of delays in referrals in the UK, the results of the international survey published in the BMJ Open show.
The study of 2,795 primary care physicians across 11 countries and regions found a relationship between the readiness of the doctor to investigate or refer for suspected cancer and cancer survival in each jurisdiction.
It is the first time that readiness to investigate cancer - either directly or by referral to secondary care - has been shown to correlate with disease survival.
The report states t here is "significant variation" between jurisdictions in doctors' access to diagnostic tests, and suggested doctors in the UK did not have enough access to CT and MRI scans to check for tumours.
Professor Jane Maher, joint chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "This study shows us once again how the ability to access data on areas such as cancer referrals can help guide on how we can continue to improve cancer care and survival across the country.
"We know that timely diagnosis is vital to not only improving cancer survival rates but also ensuring that people are able to live well after cancer.
"However we must not jump to overly simplistic solutions. We know that issues such as an over-stretched healthcare system, a lack of support for GPs, misunderstandings between hospitals and primary care and inadequate diagnostic capacity can all contribute to delays in diagnosis.
"If we are serious about improving cancer survival rates in the UK, we need to ensure that GPs are well supported to spot cancer symptoms early. We also need to ensure they are able to make quick referrals and that when referrals are made, the system responds in a timely manner."
The Royal College of General Practitioners, which represents 50,000 doctors, said GPs were "doing excellent job considering the limited resources available" to them.
Dr Richard Roope, clinical lead for cancer at the RCGP, said: "O f course there is always room for improvement, but funding for general practice is at an all time low, we have a severe shortage of doctors and access to scanners is very limited in UK primary care.
"GPs are 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.
"We also need significant, ongoing public awareness campaigns to educate the public about the causes of cancer - more than 40% of cancers are related to lifestyle choice - and to encourage people who have signs of cancer to approach their GP as early as possible.
"Timely diagnosis of cancer is a priority for the RCGP and we are working hard to support GPs so they can identify signs of cancer as early as possible and all patients can receive the care they need at every stage of their condition."