Family GPs in Britain are among the worst in the world for referring patients for tests to check for cancer, an international study has found. Patients in the UK wait four times as long as those in Australia for scans and checks for suspected cancer, the international research found. The major research – which found clear links between survival and higher rates of referral – found that UK-based GPs were the least likely to refer patients with signs that could mean cancer.

Charities last night called for a review of the system of Britain’s cancer care, suggesting that the use of GPs as “gatekeepers” to allow or refuse tests meant diagnoses were being delayed. The research by the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, published in BMJ Open, examined six countries with similar healthcare systems. Almost 3,000 doctors were asked to manage hypothetical scenarios of patients coming to them with symptoms which could mean lung, bowel or ovarian cancer.

Their responses were then mapped against survival data for the countries, which showed that countries in which GPs were more reluctant to refer had lower survival rates. Overall, UK survival was lower than all the countries examined, apart from Denmark, the findings show. The shortest waits for tests were in Australia, with a total wait of around one and a half weeks in New South Wales. The longest waits were in northern Ireland, with waits of seven to eight weeks, while England had waits of nearly five weeks.

Researchers also examined whether GPs were able to offer patients direct access to tests, rather than refer them to hospital. Just one in five GPs in England offered such a service for CT and MRI scans – half the level of access offered across Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said the study showed the need to urgently address late diagnosis in the UK, which had left Britain’s survival rates lagging behind other countries.

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