Following a Cancer Research UK study, which found that almost 3400 patients experienced an avoidable delay in their cancer diagnosis over a one-year period, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has called for rapid GP access to cancer tests.

According to the report, which was published in the "Cancer Epidemiology” journal, long waits for tests and results after seeing a GP were a chief factor. Out of the avoidable delays in patients diagnosed in 2014, 13% happened before the patient saw their GP, while 49% of delays happened when the patient was being assessed by the GP surgery. This included waiting for tests to be done and results to be sent back. A further 38% of delays occurred following referral to hospital.

Long waiting times for tests were responsible for a quarter of all avoidable delays across GP surgeries and hospitals. The authors of the report suggested that this indicated staffing shortages among diagnostic staff in hospitals.

Another factor in avoidable delays were vague symptoms that GPs did not immediately attribute to cancer.

Cancer Research UK said the fact that GPs were “working in the dark” amid a staffing crisis in testing services was leaving too many patients waiting for months before they could start treatment.

Around half of the patients who experienced an avoidable delay waited around two months longer to be diagnosed compared with patients who did not experience a delay.

Cancer Research UK GP Expert Dr Richard Roope said that GPs need more help to improve patient cancer care. He said: "GPs are working hard across the UK to make sure that patients are diagnosed quickly by referring more people earlier for tests. But we see patients with a huge variety of symptoms, often non-specific ones, and it can be difficult to decide when to check for cancer."

The charity's Director of Early Diagnosis Sara Hiom called on the next Government to urgently increase the NHS workforce. She said: “While NHS doctors and nurses are doing everything they can to see patients quickly, the NHS is experiencing a staffing crisis. There simply aren’t enough people in the NHS to read scans or report tests swiftly.”

Although the Government has promised cancer patients a diagnosis or all clear within a month by April 2020, existing targets to start treatment within two months have not been met for more than five years.

RCGP Chair Professor Martin Marshall said: "The college has been calling for many years for GPs to have better access to diagnostic tests in the community, and the appropriate training to use them, so that our decisions to refer can be better informed, and in turn ease pressures elsewhere in the health service.

"Steps should undoubtedly be taken to reduce avoidable delays in cancer diagnosis – and lessons should be learnt from this study, which very clearly shows that the main problem is not having enough people, right across the system, to do what needs to be done to ensure patients receive the care they need when they need it."

An NHS spokeswoman responded to the report saying it was based on data from 2014 and did not reflect significant improvements in care and treatment, "such as a lowering in the threshold at which GPs refer patients for a cancer test, that have happened in the five years since."

She added: "The NHS carried out 2.2 million checks last year, the most ever, and research released just last week shows that cancer survival is at a record high."

The study, "The Frequency, Nature and Impact of GP-assessed Avoidable Delays in a Population-based Cohort of Cancer Patients", is available at www.sciencedirect.com.

Last reviewed 10 December 2019