About 5,000 lives could be saved each year in England if GPs follow new guidelines on cancer diagnosis, the health watchdog NICE says. Its experts say that a new approach is necessary to tackle England’s lagging cancer survival rates. The guidelines suggest all GPs order certain tests directly, side-stepping referrals to specialists first, to speed up access to treatment. Charities say they support the changes but warn that more funds are needed.

Doctors have long agreed that the sooner most cancers are diagnosed, the greater the chance of survival. But according to experts from the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), although the situation is improving, thousands of lives are lost each year because tumours are being diagnosed too late.  The new guidelines make wide-ranging changes to previous recommendations, to encourage GPs to think of cancer sooner and lower the threshold at which people are given cancer tests.

For the first time the guidance focuses on key symptoms, rather than encouraging GPs to consider first which cancer a patient may have and then to cross check it with the symptoms. The recommendations also say all GPs across England should be able to order some cancer tests directly, without waiting for an appointment with a specialist.

For example in certain cases, GPs will now be able to access CT scans and internal examinations such as endoscopies, without a specialist referral. NICE hopes this will allow patients to get investigations more quickly and take the pressure off specialists’ time. The committee has produced information to help patients spot the most common signs of cancer so they can seek medical advice quickly.

And the guidance encourages doctors to put “safety nets” in place to ensure difficult cases are not missed. Patients whose symptoms are worrying but do not currently suggest cancer, for example, should be given follow-up appointments or advice on when to come back.

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