The British Liver Trust welcomes the announcement today from NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, that there will be a national roll out of fast-track testing which could lead to tens of thousands of cancers being detected sooner.
NHS England is expanding direct access to diagnostic scans across all GP practices, helping cut waiting times and speeding up a cancer diagnosis or all-clear for patients.
Liver cancer is the fastest-rising cause of cancer death in the UK and many patients with will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital or an emergency GP referral after symptoms have become severe and the cancer is more advanced. In England, 44.9% of liver cancers are diagnosed in an emergency setting.
From this month, every GP team will start to be able to directly order CT scans, ultrasounds or brain MRIs for patients with concerning symptoms, but who fall outside the NICE guideline threshold for an urgent suspected cancer referral.
Symptoms of liver cancer include unintentional weight loss, loss of appetite, feeling very full after eating, feeling and being sick, pain or swelling in your abdomen, jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes), itchy skin, feeling very tired and weak, fever with shivers, vomiting blood, dark black tarry poo or dark urine. However, the majority of these symptoms do not occur until liver cancer is at an advanced stage.
Around one in five cancer cases are detected after routine testing following referral to a hospital specialist, meaning some people can wait much longer for a diagnosis.
The scheme will allow GPs to order these checks directly, helping to cut down wait times to as little as four weeks.
Hundreds of thousands of initial hospital appointments could also be freed up under the approach by reducing the need for a specialist consultation first – boosting efforts to address the Covid backlog that have inevitably built up during the pandemic.
Under the ambitious Direct Access scheme, around 67,000 people who are usually diagnosed with cancer through non-urgent testing will now be eligible for fast-tracking – and can have a better chance of having their disease picked up at an earlier stage, when survival chances are higher.
GP teams will continue to follow NICE guidelines for referring patients to urgent cancer pathways. But the scheme will see patients who have vague symptoms and fall outside these standards offered quicker checks.
Not only can it help identify cancer cases earlier, but it will also offer peace of mind to those with concerning symptoms by letting them know they are cancer free.
Urgent cancer referrals have been at record levels since March 2021, with over a quarter of a million people (255,055) checked following an urgent GP referral in August – the highest number since records began.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard will say at NHS Providers annual conference in Liverpool: “GPs are already referring record numbers of patients for urgent cancer referrals, so much so that the shortfall in people coming forward for cancer checks caused by the pandemic has now been eradicated.
“This new initiative builds on that progress, supporting GPs to provide more opportunities for testing across the country for people who have vague symptoms.
“By sending patients straight to testing, we can catch and treat more cancers at an earlier stage, helping us to deliver on our NHS Long Term plan’s ambitions to diagnose three-quarters of cancers at stages one or two when they are easier to treat.
“As ever, if you have a potential cancer symptom – please come forward and get checked – it could save your life”.
The NHS will build on existing hospital diagnostic services with the significant additional capacity provided by Community Diagnostic Centres and, over time, will support primary care teams to boost the number of GP Direct Access tests available.
Dozens of the ‘one stop shops’ have already been introduced in hospitals and town centres across the country since July 2021, which are on track to provide at least three million tests this year.
There are plans to open up to 160 in total over the next two years, with around nine million annual checks delivered by the end of 2025.