GPs have been ordered to send thousands more patients directly for scans in a bid to speed up cancer diagnoses and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments.
Health bosses want family doctors to bypass hospital medics and request more ultrasounds, brain MRIs and CT scans themselves.
At present, people with vague symptoms can face long waits for an appointment with a specialist, diagnostic tests and their first treatment.
But the new guidance tells GPs to use their clinical judgment and order more scans for symptoms such as coughs, fatigue and dizziness – skipping the need to see a middle-man first.
It is expected to cut the typical wait for a routine diagnosis from around 12 weeks to four and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments.
Health bosses want family doctors to bypass hospital medics and request more ultrasounds, brain MRIs and CT scans themselves
Around 67,000 cancer a case a year – one in five – are detected after routine testing following a non-urgent referral, meaning people can face unnecessary delays.
The new policy will apply to vague symptoms that fall outside the current two-week referral target, which applies when GPs have a stronger suspicion of cancer.
Guidance has been in place since 2012 telling GPs they have the right to refer patients directly for scans but NHS England is now pushing on the issue in a bid to get more people diagnosed with cancer in its earliest stages.
The 2012 guidance, Direct Access to Diagnostic Tests for Cancer, said chest X-rays, ultrasound, flexible sigmoidoscopy and brain MRI were ‘priority areas’ to which GPs should have free access.
However, some GPs failed to make the bookings or were prevented from doing so by local health leaders or hospital bosses.
Now, NHS England is trying to standardise the approach so that regions which may not have access to all the tests can get them.
Its guidance also allows GP teams to use a wider scope of tests in a bid to end the postcode lottery.
In 2014, an investigation by GP online found local health leaders were preventing GPs from directly ordering the scans.
It found many clinical commissioning groups recommend GPs divert patients through specialist services, with one in 10 putting a blanket refusal on GPs’ direct access to scans.
Some hospitals have shown that when GPs refer directly they can cut waiting times.
In 2018, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust showed that direct access to CT scans for suspected lung cancer meant patients waited an average of 29 days instead of 66 between referral and treatment.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard will tell the NHS Providers conference in Liverpool today: ‘GPs are already referring record numbers of patients for urgent cancer referrals, so much so that the shortfall in people coming forward for cancer checks caused by the pandemic has now been eradicated.
‘This new initiative builds on that progress, supporting GPs to provide more opportunities for testing across the country for people who have vague symptoms.
Why IS the NHS doing less but costing you MORE?
Hospitals are still performing fewer operations and scans each month than before Covid, despite being given billions more taxpayer cash.
Analysis shows the health service in England carried out 600,000 fewer procedures in the first nine months of 2022, compared to the same period in 2019.
The slump in activity, noted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has been logged even though its budget grew by nearly £30billion over the same period and fewer people than expected joined the queue for treatment.
IFS economists suggested that health bosses will now struggle to meet their pledge of boosting pre-pandemic capacity by 30 per cent from 2024 — which the NHS was given an extra £10billion per year until 2025 to tackle.
The overall waiting list — already at an all-time high of 7.1million — could keep rising ‘well beyond next year’ if the NHS fails to increase its activity, it said.
Thinktanks told MailOnline that those looking at NHS productivity would think Covid ‘was still raging’, arguing the pandemic can’t explain why the backlog ‘continues to grow at such pace’.
Taxpayers who are ‘pouring unprecedented sums of money’ into the health service are ‘tired of hearing excuses’, they said, calling for ‘lavishly paid management’ to be held to account.
The NHS faces a ‘tripledemic’ of Covid, flu and the A&E crisis this winter and says it needs another £7billion due to inflation.
It also has to contend with a striking workforce, with unions plotting to co-ordinate walkouts by hundreds of thousands of staff members this winter in a bid for better pay and working conditions.
‘By sending patients straight to testing, we can catch and treat more cancers at an earlier stage, helping us to deliver on our NHS Long Term plan’s ambitions to diagnose three-quarters of cancers at stages one or two when they are easier to treat.’
Dr Katharine Halliday, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: ‘For a patient with cancer, every day counts. Quicker diagnosis means less invasive treatments, better recovery and better outcomes.’
Louise Ansari, national director of Healthwatch England, added: ‘People tell us that when they experience unnerving symptoms they need quicker and easier access to diagnostic tests to either give them reassurance that nothing is wrong or spot problems early so they can have a treatment plan put in place.
‘This new initiative will give every GP practice in the country much greater flexibility in what tests and scans they can order for their patients.
‘Ultimately, we hope this will help diagnose people who have cancer as early as possible, leading to better quality care and better long-term survival rates.’
From 2023/24, GPs will be able to directly access an even wider set of tests to diagnose conditions unrelated to cancer.
Kruti Shrotri, head of policy at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Cancer that is diagnosed and treated at an early stage is more likely to be treated successfully, so we welcome this announcement by NHSE which will help speed up diagnosis for patients.
‘But with capacity being drawn from Community Diagnostic Centres, which are still being rolled out, it’s vital that they are protected from funding cuts at this Thursday’s Autumn Statement to ensure everyone benefits from these potentially life-saving tests.’
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said GPs are already doing a good job of appropriately referring patients with suspected cancer.
‘However, there will be patients who might not meet the criteria for rapid referral and have vague symptoms that could be cancer but are more likely to be less serious common conditions,’ he said.
‘In these situations, direct access to diagnostic services can be helpful.
‘GPs want to ensure timely diagnosis for their patients, so that those with cancer can receive the appropriate treatment, and those without can be reassured.
‘This is why the College has long been calling for GPs to have better access to diagnostic testing in the community, and whilst the devil will be in the detail as to how it will work in practice, today’s announcement is a positive step.’
He said that, ultimately, what is needed to improve cancer diagnosis is to increase the workforce across the NHS, including in primary care.