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Low uptake of cancer risk assessment tools in primary care

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Many GP practices are failing to make use of potentially life-saving risk assessment tools that can help catch cancer early on, suggests a new study.

The tools were designed by a team of experts from the University of Exeter to predict the likelihood of undiagnosed cancer based on a patient’s symptoms, test results and other clinical information.

“We need to carry out further research and work with GPs to find out how the tools can be integrated”

Sarah Price

However, a study published in the British Journal of General Practice has suggested these are not being used by many practices across the UK.

A survey of 476 GPs working in 277 general practices revealed the tools were only available for use in a third of practices – although this should increase as they become incorporated into more primary care IT systems in the future.

Crucially, the study funded by the National Institute for Health Research, found the tools were only likely to be used in about half of the practices that did have access to them.

The findings come amid ongoing concern about cancer survival rates in the UK. While these have improved, the UK still lags behind other countries in Europe.

“The study shows that there is much scope for cancer tools to be used more”

Willie Hamilton

With early diagnosis considered to be one of the main ways to improve survival rates, the researchers said risk assessment tools had a key role in helping primary care clinicians to decide whether or not to refer someone for further tests and investigation.

The study authors called for more training for practices to ensure the tools were used regularly and effectively.

“The tools are potentially a useful resource for GPs, helping them to assess which of their patients should be sent for testing because they might be harbouring an undiagnosed cancer,” said lead author Sarah Price, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s medical school.

She said: “We need to carry out further research and work with GPs to find out how the tools can be integrated into the often time-pressured consultations between GPs and their patients.”

Co-author Professor Willie Hamilton, who is a practising GP, revealed that the research team would be launching a major trial of the tools in 530 practices in the second half of this year.

“We know that some of the UK’s poor cancer outcomes relate to delays in diagnosis. The study shows that there is much scope for cancer tools to be used more,” he said.

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