Doctors have been given new cancer diagnosis guidelines that could save thousands of lives a year, according to the health watchdog.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has lowered the threshold at which people are offered cancer tests and given GPs the power to order tests, such as CT scans and endoscopies, without having to wait for a referral from a specialist.
It has also issued GPs with a detailed checklist of symptoms to help them make earlier diagnoses after warning that some GPs were "basically guessing" whether patients’ symptoms were a sign of cancer.
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Britain has one of the lowest cancer survival rates in Western Europe – on a par with Poland and Estonia – and almost half of all cancers are diagnosed at a late stage. Around 10,000 more preventable cancer deaths occur in the UK, compared with similar countries in Europe.
"Britain is lagging behind other countries in terms of cancer survival and one of the big reasons for this is late diagnosis," said one of the authors, Professor Willie Hamilton.
"In my experience I would say that late diagnosis alone is responsible for thousands of deaths every year. This updated guideline will help to change that."
Cancer charities have welcomed the new guidelines, saying they will give GPs more freedom to quickly refer patients with worrying symptoms, but warned that further funding was needed to implement them.
"We know the strain the NHS is already under and the number of people diagnosed with cancer is increasing," Sarah Hiom from Cancer Research UK told the BBC. "Further investment is essential in order to support this much needed shift in investigative testing."
But the patients' rights group Patient Concern said it was surprised that doctors needed to be given such obvious advice. "I would be quite worried if GPs didn't know the basics of common cancers and what to look out for," the organisation's Roger Ross told the Daily Telegraph.
Cancer survivor David Martin, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer 15 years ago, urged other patients to "make a nuisance of themselves if they feel disregarded".
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