A new study has shown that cancer patients who are young, female or from an ethnic minority face a longer wait to be diagnosed and referred to a cancer specialist.
Data from the 2010 National Cancer Patient Experience Survey in England showed that from 41,299 cancer patients in England, 77 per cent were referred after one or two visits to their GPs.
This means a quarter of patients needed to visit their GP at least three times before being sent to a cancer specialist, and some groups were less likely to be referred quickly than others.
The analysis, published in The Lancet Oncology, showed that 16-24 year olds were more than twice as likely to have at least three hospital visits than the over 65s. Researchers speculated that this is down to doctors not expecting to find cancer in younger patients.
Those from ethnic minorities were also less likely to be referred quickly than white patients. Women were referred more quickly than men for some cancer types, but on average men were referred to specialists after fewer visits to the GP.
Some cancers were also detected more quickly than others. For example, out of 8,408 breast cancer patients, 7.4% had more than three appointments before referral. But for harder to detect pancreatic cancer, 41.3% of 467 patients had more than three appointments.
Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, lead researcher from the University of Cambridge, said "the older you get the more ethnicity matters, particularly in middle and older age". Jessica Harris, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said:
"This study highlights some of the difficulties in diagnosing cancer in primary care.”
"A GP will see only around eight cases of cancer a year, on average, among hundreds of people with symptoms that might indicate cancer, so making appropriate referral decisions can be challenging, especially for rarer cancers or those with symptoms that are vague or common to other diseases.”
Whilst patients with private medical insurance have to see their GP before going private, they can choose to be referred to a specialist of their choice, at a time of their choice, in a private hospital of their choice. And if the worst should happen, private medical insurance will cover the cost of cancer drugs not available on the NHS.
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