BMA study considers delays in lung cancer diagnosis as survival rates trail other countries

Posted: 24/10/2014


A study of lung cancer cases published in the British Medical Journal suggests that GPs in Britain are ‘missing opportunities’ to spot lung cancer at an early stage, meaning one in three people with the disease dies within 90 days of diagnosis.

The study looked at over 20,000 lung cancer cases in people aged over 30 and found that one in 10 had died within a month of diagnosis, and one in 20 had been diagnosed only after they had died.

Lung cancer kills more than 35,000 people a year and is the biggest cause of cancer death in the UK. Statistics suggest that the UK is lagging behind other countries in lung cancer survival rates – for instance, in Sweden, 46% of people with the disease between 2004 and 2007 survived a year, compared with 30% in Britain.

The research found that the chances of an early death actually rose with the number of GP consultations a patient attended. Those who had died had visited their GP an average of five times in the months before diagnosis. Even surgeries that carried out a significant number of chest X-rays did not ‘appear to translate’ to a reduction in early deaths from lung cancer, reports the BBC.

The scientists suggested that doctors require better diagnostic tools to facilitate earlier diagnosis. One such recommendation is for software allowing GPs to type-in symptoms of lung cancer to rapidly identify the disease, which is often difficult to diagnose as symptoms can present like other conditions, such as chest infections.

Lead scientist Dr Emma O'Dowd said the findings contrasted with her expectations that people with lung cancer were not visiting the doctor, accounting for Britain's lower survival rates.

Commenting on this research, Lucie Prothero, associate at Penningtons Manches, said: “We deal with many cases of delayed diagnosis of cancer, of which lung cancer is probably one of the most prevalent. These findings resonate with our experience, where so often we see patients who have presented to their GPs for extended periods of time with persistent symptoms, such as a cough that will not go away, yet there has been a failure to refer them for further investigation, such as x-rays, or to follow up properly afterwards.

“When we consider the statistic that one in three British lung cancer patients dies within three months of diagnosis, this research suggests that one of the factors at the root of this is delayed diagnosis. What also needs to be considered is the role that late presentation plays in this poor statistic. This is a reason why we feel awareness campaigns and encouraging patients to seek medical attention when symptoms persist is vital to increase earlier diagnosis and therefore survival rates.”


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