Don’t delay seeking help, urge GPs as study shows impact of early referrals

People with concerns about their health should not delay seeking help, leading GPs have said.

The Royal College of GPs said it “cannot stress enough” how important it is for patients to continue to seek help during the pandemic.

The comments come after a new study found that thanks to early referrals from GPs, cancer patients were surviving for longer than ever.

The study was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But concerns have been raised that as a result of the UK lockdown, people are deferring seeking help for routine health problems.

If patients have a medical problem, then a delay in seeking help could lead to more serious illness.

Experts from King’s College London and Public Health England analysed data from 1.4 million cancer patients in England who were diagnosed between 2011 and 2015.

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that cancer patients from the highest referring GP practices had a lower mortality rate.

Cancer patients from these same practices were also more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier stage for breast, lung and prostate cancer.

If a GP suspects a patient has cancer, they can fast-track refer them so they can be seen by a specialist within two weeks.

“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,” said Dr Thomas Round, from King’s College London.

Commenting on the study, Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “We can’t stress enough how important it is that patients who have concerns about their health, such as potential cancer symptoms, contact their GP practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“GP practices are open, albeit using different ways of working, with most consultations now being conducted via telephone or video – this is to ensure that patients continue to receive the care they need, while minimising spread of the virus. However, if we do need to see a patient face to face, this will be arranged, and every effort will be made to keep them as safe as possible.

“We know that in many cases, the earlier cancer is diagnosed the higher the chance of effective treatment and a favourable outcome. GP referrals save lives and ignoring symptoms or delaying treatment can lead to avoidable deaths.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “Diagnosing cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful, is vital to ensure more people survive their disease. We urge people with any persistent, worsening or unexplained symptoms not to delay contacting their GP, even in the current situation.

“We know that people are following Government guidance and trying to stay home during this pandemic, as we all should be, and this could be why they’re not seeking help from their doctor. But even though many GPs are closed to reduce in-person contact, they are still happy to take online and telephone appointments first instead.

“Presenting now means GPs can decide who should be investigated more urgently, and who can safely wait until the Covid risk is reduced. It’s still vital to get your symptoms checked out by your GP, so do contact your practice about virtual appointments.”

Steven McIntosh, director of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These are exceptional circumstances for health services but getting people diagnosed with minimal delays must continue to happen.”

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England’s clinical director for cancer, said: “This analysis is very encouraging – cancers are caught earlier and lives are saved if more people are referred for investigation, and the earliest possible detection of cancer remains a major goal for the NHS Long Term Plan.

“Although the NHS is continuing to pull out all the stops to tackle coronavirus, if you have worrying symptoms, you should still contact your GP and be referred for further checks as normal.”