Top hospital to pioneer cancer ‘calculator’ for fast diagnosis

General View of the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea (PA)
General View of the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea (PA)

A London hospital will pioneer a new "calculator" to assess a patient's risk of cancer to try to speed up diagnosis of the disease.

The Everest-Hn study, led by doctors at the Royal Marsden, will recruit over 100,000 patients from 52 centres across Britain who have been referred with suspected head and neck cancer.

Participants will be asked to complete an electronic questionnaire about their symptoms, which will be fed into a calculator designed by clinicians.

It will also consider a patient's smoking history, age, sex and alcohol intake.

The calculator will then produce a personalised assessment of the risk of the patient having cancer, which will be shared with hospital cancer specialists and used to inform decision making on future investigations.

Patients deemed high risk will be seen by a specialist more quickly. In England, the maximum waiting time for a hospital appointment for suspected cancer is two weeks from the day the hospital receives a referral letter.

Some 93 per cent of patients should be seen within this timeframe. However, figures released last month showed that seven in 10 NHS trusts were failing to meet the national target.

Study lead Professor Vinidh Paleri, a consultant at the Royal Marsden Trust, told the Standard the calculator could help to give specialist doctors a more complete picture of each patient's story. Information from a referral letter from a GP is often not enough to decide who may need an investigation or what type of investigation they need, he said.

"This could speed up the diagnosis for some, and ease anxiety for others who do not have the disease," he said.

"Patients have told me they do not want to wait two weeks to find out whether they have cancer."

Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term for cancers of the nose, mouth, throat, voice box, thyroid and salivary glands. Around 12,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in England.

There are over 200,000 patients referred with suspected head and neck cancer in England every year, making it the fifth largest group of suspected cancer referrals seen by hospitals.

However, the vast majority (95 per cent) of patients will be found to be cancer-free.

Prof Paleri said he hoped that, were the trial to be successful, the calculator could help improve the referral pathways for other types of cancer, including breast and prostate.

"The advantages are really significant if we get this right," he said. "We have already validated the calculator on 15,000 patients and it had a 93 per cent accuracy rate at separating high and low-risk patients."