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GPs fuelling Britain's poor cancer survival rates by failing to refer patients to specialists, Imperial study finds

Laura Donnelly
The study found significantly lower survival among countries which do not allow direct access to hospitals  - PA

GPs are fuelling Britain's poor cancer survival rates, with significantly better results seen in countries which allow patients to access hospitals directly, a study suggests.

Researchers said the NHS system of “gatekeeping” - meaning that patients have to see a family doctor before being allowed to undergo tests or get a specialist assessment - was also linked with lower satisfaction among patients.

The study by Imperial College London analysed 21 studies comparing different healthcare systems in both the US and 19 European countries.

It found “significantly lower” cancer survival rates under systems which insist that a patient must be referred by a GP for hospital care, with one study finding a difference of 11 per cent in one-year survival.

Britain is lagging behind most developed nations in cancer survival, despite recent improvements in early diagnosis of breast cancer.

Researchers also found that systems operating “gatekeeper” methods saw up to one third more visits to GPs than those who allowed patients to access hospitals directly.

The study found lower expenditure and lower healthcare use, in systems which do not allow direct access, as well as better quality of care for some conditions.

Health officials have promised that by next year, patients with suspected cancer should get a diagnosis or all-clear within a month, following the rollout of “rapid diagnostic and assessment centres”.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “While it’s clear to see why UK GPs are often called the ‘gatekeepers of the NHS’, we will always put the needs of the individual patient first  and refer anyone who we think might need secondary care intervention. However, this research also highlights a chronic lack of access to diagnostic tests in primary care, which can have a huge bearing on referral rates for conditions such as cancer.”

Jodie Moffat from Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s understandable why there’s ongoing concern about patients not seeing specialists fast enough. This paper raises an important topic but the circumstances in the UK have changed since some of the research cited was published.”