GPs urged to send thousands more patients for scans in bid to diagnose cancer earlier

Thousands of people are set to be referred for more ultrasounds, brain MRIs and CT scans to check vague symptoms that fall outside of the current two-week cancer referral to see a specialist, in a bid to catch the disease at an earlier stage.

Presently, people who suffer from symptoms such as coughs, fatigue and dizziness face long waits for tests or to see hospital medics, which in turn delays them getting their first treatment.

The guidance, which has existed since 2012, is being pushed by the NHS so GPs and family doctors will be able to use their clinical judgement and help individuals skip the need to see a specialist first.

According to NHS England, waiting times could be cut to as little as four weeks, when a GP orders these checks directly. Hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments could then be freed up.

The 2012 guidance, Direct Access to Diagnostic Tests for Cancer, said chest X-rays, ultrasound, flexible sigmoidoscopy and brain MRI were "priority areas" to which GPs should have free access.

Now, NHS England is trying to standardise the approach so that regions which may not have access to all the tests can get them.

An investigation by GP online back in 2014 found local health leaders were preventing GPs from directly ordering the scans. It found that many clinical commissioning groups recommended GPs diverted patients through specialist services, with one in 10 putting a blanket refusal on GPs' direct access to scans.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard will tell the NHS Providers conference in Liverpool: "GPs are already referring record numbers of patients for urgent cancer referrals, so much so that the shortfall in people coming forward for cancer checks caused by the pandemic has now been eradicated.

"This new initiative builds on that progress, supporting GPs to provide more opportunities for testing across the country for people who have vague symptoms.

"By sending patients straight to testing, we can catch and treat more cancers at an earlier stage, helping us to deliver on our NHS long term plan's ambitions to diagnose three-quarters of cancers at stages one or two when they are easier to treat."

Back in 2018, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust showed that patients with suspected lung cancer, who had direct access to CT scans, waited an average of 29 days instead of 66 between referral and treatment.

Dr Katharine Halliday, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: "For a patient with cancer, every day counts. Quicker diagnosis means less invasive treatments, better recovery and better outcomes."

Louise Ansari, national director of Healthwatch England, added: "This new initiative will give every GP practice in the country much greater flexibility in what tests and scans they can order for their patients. Ultimately, we hope this will help diagnose people who have cancer as early as possible, leading to better quality care and better long-term survival rates."

GPs will be able to directly access wider tests used to diagnose conditions unrelated to cancer from 2023 to 2024.