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31.07.12

‘Differing standards of care’ in cancer referrals

Source: by Fenton Coulthurst

There is a huge range in the number of urgent referrals to cancer specialists being made by different GP practices across the UK, ranging from under 830 to over 2,550 for every 100,000 people annually.

The report, by the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN), is the first time numbers of cancer referrals have been made available to the public.

Dr Mick Peake, clinical lead for the NCIN, said: “The range of the variation is so wide that, at the extremes, it probably reflects differing standards of care.”

But he stressed caution in interpreting the results, explaining: “The data are not easy to interpret since we do not know what the ‘optimum’ level is for these measures and although the data are adjusted for age, there may be other differences in the characteristics of the patients of a particular GP practice that impact on local referral rates.”

Clearly, GP practices in affluent areas with fewer smokers will not tend to see as many suspected cancer patients as practices in poorer areas with more smokers, for example.

Di Riley, the associate director for the NCIN’s clinical outcomes programme, said: “Although the number of people GPs refer isn’t on its own an indicator of how good they are at spotting the early signs of cancer, it’s clear from these data that there’s variation that needs to be addressed.”

The report also showed a large difference in the number of referred patients diagnosed with cancer. The organisation hopes that this information will aid practices in improving or maintaining their standard of care.

Sarah Woolnough, executive director of policy and information at Cancer Research UK, said the variation was “very worrying” and added: “This level of variation suggests differing approaches by some GPs.”

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