GPs to Receive Direct Access to Cancer Tests

Results of breast cancer screening

Paralegal Nancy Tebbutt talks through the recent announcement that NHS England are expanding direct access to diagnostic scans across all GP practices……


At present, if a GP wishes to complete diagnostic scans on a patient with suspected cancer, they will refer the patient to a specialist hospital. The GP will first ensure the patient falls within the NICE guidelines for urgent referral and the patient must have clear symptoms. However, only one in five cases are detected after routine testing following referral to the specialist hospital. Patients that experience fewer symptoms experience long waits for check-ups and are often only diagnosed after presenting to A&E or being referred to the hospital for something else. Inevitably, this process can cause a significant delay in a cancer diagnosis, with two out of every five cancer cases not being diagnosed until they are at a later stage.


Thankfully, it has recently been announced that NHS England are expanding direct access to diagnostic scans across all GP practices from this month. This means that every GP team will be able to directly order CT scans, ultrasounds, or MRIs for patients with concerning symptoms, but who fall outside the guidelines. NHS England chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, will address this change at the NHS Providers annual conference of health managers in Liverpool.


This change should help the backlog caused by the pandemic, whereby Macmillan Cancer Care estimated that in December 2021 ‘there were more than 43,000 people missing a cancer diagnosis.’ Further, just last week the charity stated that ‘the total number of people who have started cancer treatment in England since the start of the pandemic is more than 21,000 fewer than expected.’ This means that the NHS would have to work at 110% capacity for a further 9 months to catch up. Macmillan said:


“It’s appalling that September saw yet another record high for the number of people forced to wait too long for a cancer diagnosis. Despite the very best efforts of NHS staff, delays to diagnosis and treatment can be incredibly traumatic for people living with cancer, causing huge amounts of anxiety, and potentially impacting their chances of survival.”


The news to be delivered today has come at no better time. NHS England suggests that granting GPs direct access should result in ‘hundreds of thousands of initial hospital appointments being freed up – boosting efforts to address the Covid-19 backlog that built up over the pandemic.’ They also suggest that granting direct access should ‘help to cut waiting times down to as little as four weeks.’


However, patients will also need faster access to treatment upon diagnosis. Last week a BBC News analysis found that the number of patients waiting more than 62 days for their treatment to start has doubled in the past four years across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This delay is partly due to a shortage of staff to provide treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.


It is our hope that the introduction of GP’s direct access to booking cancer tests should help the Covid-19 backlog and ensure that the number of people waiting for a cancer diagnosis is significantly reduced.


If you or a family member have experienced a delay in a cancer diagnosis, please do not hesitate to contact our specialist Medical Negligence team who will offer confidential and free initial advice.