Mark Baker image

NICE aims for earlier cancer diagnosis

pharmafile | November 20, 2014 | News story | Sales and Marketing Cancer, England, NHS, NICE, OECD, UK, baker 

NICE is updating its guidance in a bid to help doctors spot the signs and symptoms of cancer as part of a move to improve early diagnosis rates.

Research published in 2009 suggested that up to 10,000 people in England could be dying every year because their cancer was diagnosed late – and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has previously warned that countries are not doing all they could to diagnose and treat the disease.

Nearly one out of two people will develop cancer during their lifetime and NICE’s intervention comes as figures show the NHS in England has missed cancer waiting time targets for the third quarter in a row.

The target is for 85% of suspected cancer patients to begin their treatment within 62 days of being referred by a GP – however, for the three months to September this year that figure was 83.5 per cent.

The new NICE guidance on earlier diagnosis follows a ‘symptom-based approach’ and is out for consultation until 9 January, with a final document expected to be published in May 2015.

The guidelines use tables setting out which symptoms could be linked to what cancers and provides clear recommendations to GPS for suitable tests and referral to specialist services.

There are also recommendations on how long – ranging from 48 hours or less to two weeks – people should wait to see a specialist following referral, and about ‘safety netting’ to check cancer-risk symptoms which do not meet the criteria for referral.

A leading charity has hailed it all as a positive move. “We’re pleased that NICE is updating its guidelines to make it easier for GPs to refer patients with worrying symptoms for further tests,” said Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis.

“This means more cancers should be diagnosed as early as possible when treatment is most likely to be effective.”

However, doctors need better access to diagnostic tests and speedy results to be truly effective, the charity believes – and with more than 200 types of the disease, there is a consensus that diagnosis is sometimes very complex.

“The problem is that a lot of cancer symptoms can be very general and similar to those of other conditions,” explains Professor Mark Baker, NICE’s clinical practice director.

“For example, many people who smoke have a cough associated with chronic lung disease. These are the same people most likely to develop lung cancer, but may well dismiss their symptoms as ‘normal for them’.”

“Unless it is a cancer-related sign or symptom that we are very familiar with – a lump in the breast, for instance – many people won’t even think about the possibility of cancer,” he adds.

Adam Hill

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