Bowel cancer patients living in the most deprived areas have up to 13% higher levels of emergency admissions prior to a diagnosis than those in the least deprived areas, according to UK researchers.
The researchers analysed hospital admissions data for around 65,000 patients diagnosed with bowel cancer between 2011-13 in the first study of its kind in the UK.
“The results are puzzling, as treatment and follow-up are not meant to differ”
Their study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that among the 8,681 patients who died between three and 12 months after a diagnosis, 5,809 had an emergency visit before dying.
This figure was around 5% higher in those from more deprived backgrounds, said the researchers who looked at emergency admissions three months before and after diagnosis, and three months before death.
Almost four in 10 bowel cancer patients in the study overall had at least one emergency hospital visit in the three months before their diagnosis.
But 46% of the most deprived patients experienced this, compared to 33% of the least deprived, according to the study funded by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health and Social Care.
“This is a challenge that the Department of Health and Social Care needs to factor into their plans”
Those who were diagnosed through the bowel screening programme had a lower proportion of emergency hospital visits after a diagnosis than those who were diagnosed through other routes.
Lead study author Dr Francisco Rubio, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “We know that cancer patients from poorer areas are more likely to have emergency visits to hospital in the weeks before their diagnosis, but we found that this also happens after diagnosis.
“The results are puzzling, as treatment and follow-up are not meant to differ,” said Dr Rubio, who worked on the study with colleagues from University College London.
“We can’t tell why this is happening from our research alone, but this study shows us that there are problems which further research needs to look at to pinpoint answers,” he said.
He suggested that information to help people recognise the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer might be failing to reach more deprived groups.
He added: “After the diagnosis there could be social factors at play, for example a lack of a support network to care for the patients.”
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “Research like this is helping us find out how we can make improvements for people from more deprived groups who most need support.
”The NHS has been trying to reduce unplanned hospital visits for many years, so this is a challenge that the Department of Health and Social Care needs to factor into their plans if they want to reduce health inequalities and increase the number of free hospital beds,” she said. “Improved access to, and availability of, GPs could help.
She added: “This study shows that people diagnosed through screening are less likely to have an emergency hospital visit.”