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Doctors ‘unfairly blamed’ for delayed cancer diagnosis

Kamila Hawthorne, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said ’it’s never easy to hear about a patient’s cancer diagnosis being delayed’
Kamila Hawthorne, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said ’it’s never easy to hear about a patient’s cancer diagnosis being delayed’ - JUSTIN GRAINGE/GRAINGE PHOTOGRAPHY

Doctors are unfairly being blamed for long delays in diagnosing cancer, the chairman of the Royal College of GPs has said.

Kamila Hawthorne said clinicians are highly trained and lack of skills is not the problem, with timely diagnosis being an “absolute priority” among doctors.

Ms Hawthorne instead blamed cancer diagnosis delays in the UK on poor access to diagnostic tests such as radiology equipment for ultrasound and MRI scans.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, she said: “GPs are unfairly getting the blame. It’s never easy to hear about a patient’s cancer diagnosis being delayed later than it could have been.

“Timely diagnosis is an absolute priority and GPs are highly trained clinicians. This is not just in medical school but in their post-graduate training and then year-on-year appraisals, so I don’t think it’s a lack of clinical nous that is the problem.”

She said many cancers that GPs assess are in early stages and doctors will often assess for common illnesses before checking for red flags or signs that things might be more serious.

‘It’s not about training’

Ms Hawthorne said: “GPs are highly trained to look for early- and late-stage cancers. It’s not about training, it’s about getting those diagnostic tests as quickly as you need when you have a gut feeling there is something wrong with someone but don’t know what it is.

“It’s to do with lack of access to some diagnostic tests, mostly radiology equipment for ultrasound and MRI scans.”

She said “one-stop shop diagnostic centres” are being set up in England so that patients can be seen fast, have the scans and be referred to a specialist as required.

When asked about elderly and vulnerable patients who struggle to use remote appointments, Ms Hawthorne said if a patient cannot be assessed on the phone, a face-to-face appointment will be scheduled.

She said more than 70 per cent of appointments are now face to face, adding that figure was nearly back to pre-Covid levels.

‘Safe to consult via video’

“There are a lot of people who it’s perfectly safe to consult via video, telephone or e-consult – for extension of sick notes or a query on prescription – it needs to be a decision between the doctor and patient,” she said.

“But quite often I’ll say to a patient on the phone I can’t properly assess you on the phone so you need to come down today.”