Belfast Telegraph

Study raises alarm bells over cancer survival rate in Northern Ireland

Crucial research: Dr Finian Bannon
Crucial research: Dr Finian Bannon

By Gillian Halliday

A fifth of around 46,000 cancer patients given an emergency diagnosis in Northern Ireland had a survival rate of just 23% after three years, according to a report.

A total of 46,068 patients who received a cancer diagnosis, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, between 2012 and 2016 were examined for a Department of Health study.

Pathways to a Cancer Diagnosis, published yesterday, is the culmination of an 18-month project by analysts from the Health and Social Care Business Services Organisation (BSO) and researchers from Queen's University Belfast.

'Red-flag' diagnoses - urgent GP referrals where there is a suspicion of cancer - accounted for 28% of all those carried out, while routine GP diagnoses formed 21% of diagnoses, with each route having a three-year survival rate of 72% and 71% respectively.

Meanwhile, the proportion of patients diagnosed through the red-flag route increased from around 26% in 2012 to just below 31% in 2015.

The study also found that the proportion of patients diagnosed through screening (6%) and emergency presentation (20%) here was broadly comparable to rates in England.

However, the report concluded that Northern Ireland has a greater proportion of patients diagnosed via outpatient and inpatient elective routes, but a smaller proportion of red-flag and routine GP routes when compared to England.

The research said extra study was needed to understand the reasons behind the figures.

It added: "Further work is required to understand the local factors which might be driving such differences, given that for many patients their route into secondary care will typically begin with a consultation with their GP."

A breakdown of cancer types - female breast, colorectal, lung and prostate - also revealed differing rates of the various routes used to diagnose patients.

For both breast cancer and colorectal, the most common route was red-flag referrals at 50% and 27% respectively.

GP referrals ranked highest for prostate cancer patients at 37%.At a slightly lower rate (35%) was emergency presentation for lung cancer patients.

The emergency presentation route to diagnosis made up around a quarter or more of the patients with blood and lymph cancer (28%), digestive cancer (42%), upper gastrointestinal tract cancer (27%) and head, neck, brain and eye cancer (24%).

Overall, patients diagnosed via emergency routes had worse survival outcomes.

Welcoming the report, Dr Finian Bannon, from Queen's University, said the findings would help "improve patient outcomes by increasing our understanding of how cancer services are delivered and how services can be improved".

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