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New data on how patients are diagnosed – what does it tell us?

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

16 September 2015

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GP appointment patient

New stats published today show that the number of cancer patients diagnosed in an emergency is falling.

This is good news: these patients tend to do worse, so a reduction in emergency diagnoses suggests that efforts to diagnose cancers earlier are having an effect.

But where do these figures come from? And what do they mean? Last week, we took a detailed look at the different ways people are diagnosed with cancer, and what we mean by an ‘emergency’ diagnosis. You can read the article here, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Their last analysis, published in 2013, divided patients into a number of groups, based on where and how they were diagnosed. For example, by a GP referring them for tests, or by screening. One of these groups, so-called ‘emergency’ diagnoses, is made up of different sub-groups.
  • Overall, that analysis showed that one in four patients were diagnosed in an emergency in 2006 – either via their GP surgery or in hospital.
  • Some emergencies can be hard or even impossible to avoid, because certain cancers (for example acute leukaemias and certain brain tumours) develop very quickly, or cause vague symptoms similar to other common conditions.
  • But there’s room for improvement. Cancer can be diagnosed earlier by encouraging people to get unusual or persistent symptoms checked out by a GP, and supporting GPs to investigate worrying symptoms.

So, with that in mind, what does today’s update to the 2013 analysis show? Three key points stand out:

1) The number of emergency diagnoses has steadily fallen from almost 25 per cent in 2006 to 20 per cent in 2013. While a 5 per cent drop might seem small, it represents thousands of patients who will now have a much higher chance of being successfully treated.


2) This proportion has dropped across many types of cancer. Emergency diagnoses have dropped in ovarian cancer from 31 per cent to 26 per cent, with smaller decreases for melanomas and female breast cancer which have fallen by 1 per cent.

3) More people are being diagnosed under the urgent referral (‘two week wait’) system. For example, the proportion of people diagnosed with lung cancer through an urgent referral increased from 22 per cent in 2006. to 28 per cent in 2013. Over the same period, the proportion diagnosed in emergencies fell from 39 per cent to 35 per cent.

So all in all, this is really good news.

But it does come with a big caveat. As we said last week, these stats only cover patients diagnosed up to 2013 – the year the Government’s healthcare reforms kicked in, so any effects these changes will have had aren’t yet showing up in the NCIN’s data.

But we know from other data – particularly those showing missed waiting times targets and under-resourced diagnostic services – that certain parts of the NHS are struggling and that the momentum shown by today’s stats could stall.

That’s why the weekend’s Government announcement of measures to improve things are so welcome. We have to make sure our cancer services are world class, something we’ll continue to campaign hard for, and which you can help us do by signing up to our Test Cancer Sooner campaign.

– Henry