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October 4th 2016

Medical Negligence

Approach must change as research suggests one in five bowel cancers could have been spotted earlier

Hayley Collinson

Hayley Collinson

Team Supervisor and Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Approach must change as research suggests one in five bowel cancers could have been spotted earlier

Lessons must be learned – by both medical professionals and patients themselves - given the latest figures on the late diagnosis of bowel cancer. A study by the University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has suggested almost one in five bowel cancer patients diagnosed in an emergency had ‘red flag’ symptoms which should have led to their illness being picked up earlier.

Lessons must be learned – by both medical professionals and patients themselves – given the latest figures on the late diagnosis of bowel cancer. A study by the University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has suggested almost one in five bowel cancer patients diagnosed in an emergency had ‘red flag’ symptoms which should have led to their illness being picked up earlier.

Red flag symptoms in bowel cancer patients include rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habit and abdominal pain.

The research, which focused on patient care in the five years leading up to their cancer diagnosis, found 16 per cent of emergency bowel cancer patients had seen their GP three times or more with relevant symptoms.

It also found that in England almost a quarter of bowel cancers were only diagnosed after an emergency presentation, despite 17.5 per cent of colon cancer patients and 23 per cent of rectal cancer patients having earlier displayed “red flag” symptoms.

These are concerning stats. Clear warning signs have been missed and the opportunity to commence earlier treatment lost.

The findings, which analysed National Cancer Registry data linked to GP data for 1,606 patients across more than 200 GP practices, comes just weeks after I concluded a case for Hudgell Solicitors which surrounded the sad death of 72-year-old Mary Badham.

She was referred to a specialist by her own GP after displaying symptoms of bowel cancer, but the specialist dismissed it as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and sent her home with tablets and without carrying out a colonoscopy.

Two years later, Mrs Badham discovered she had cancer and that it was terminal. She died less than three years later, with experts saying she could have lived at least another 10 years had the cancer been detected early.

No excuses for failing to carry out appropriate tests for cancer

Clear guidelines are available to medical professionals for the referral of patients with ‘red flag’ symptoms. There really can be no excuse for failing to carry out the appropriate investigations and referring as appropriate.

Of course, it is understandable for doctors to be wary of worrying patients unnecessarily, but to this day Mrs Badham’s husband wishes he had demanded more tests were done that would have led to the diagnosis of cancer.

He only held back on his concerns because his wife was delighted to hear a specialist dismiss cancer as a possibility.

We know from the many clients we have represented in late diagnosis compensation claims that a full investigation of presenting symptoms would in the vast majority of cases have led to an earlier diagnosis. A potential diagnosis of cancer needs to be considered much earlier and more often.

It is important to acknowledge that these statistics are based on data from diagnoses in England from 2005 to 2006. We are now a decade on, and last year NHS England announced a five-year plan to improve cancer care which included targeting an 80 per cent increase in the number of tests being carried out. Hopefully that will mean the number of late diagnoses has significantly reduced, although that is currently unknown

For doctors, the message is clear. Too many people have been let down in the past by the simple failure to carry out the appropriate investigations, particularly in the presence of ‘red flag’ symptoms.

For patients, it is vital they provide their doctor with a full history of their symptoms and follow up with their doctor if they remain concerned about ongoing symptoms or the investigations carried out.

The main symptoms of bowel cancer are blood in the stools a change in bowel habit, such as more frequent, looser stools, and abdominal pain. Whilst most people with these symptoms will not in fact have bowel cancer, it is important to see your doctor to not only obtain a diagnosis but to peace of mind.

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