A centre for quickly diagnosing cancer has reduced waiting times by up to 92% in its first year and cut costs, analysis has found.
Patients going to GPs with non-specific but possibly cancerous symptoms were sent to a rapid diagnosis centre at Neath Port Talbot Hospital.
Swansea Bay University Health Board said waiting times were cut to less than six days.
The paper’s authors said the clinic could also be more cost effective.
Between June 2017 and May 2018, GPs referred 189 patients to the half-day clinic, which ran twice a week.
Patients were either diagnosed with a suspected cancer and referred to a specialist, given a different diagnosis, told no serious problem could be found, or sent for further investigation.
If no further investigations were needed, patients were diagnosed in an average of 5.9 days.
Further investigations took an average of 40.8 days, but control patients waited an average of 84.2 days, just under three months, for a diagnosis without using the clinic.
Currently GPs refer people who present signs to an urgent suspected cancer pathway, but half of UK cancer patients do not present with the necessary symptoms and their diagnosis takes an average of 34 days longer.
These patients, who often present vague symptoms such as unexplained weight loss or fatigue, are sent for outpatient appointments with diagnostic tests, which can take a long time and be expensive.
During the study, led by Bernadette Sewell from Swansea University’s Centre for Health and Economics, 23 cancers were diagnosed, while 30 significant other diagnoses were made – including stomach ulcers, heart failure and tuberculosis.
In the first year of the study, the clinic did not see enough patients to be cost effective, but the clinic is now outperforming usual care and is seeing four or five patients each clinic.
The study found the rapid diagnosis clinic will provide better value for money for the NHS, alongside shorter waiting times for patients, if it is run at more than 80% capacity.
If you have obvious or alarming symptoms of cancer, these are easier to pick up. The challenge has been those patients with vague or harder-to-spot symptoms.
Since 2017, Swansea Bay, along with Cwm Taf health board, has been piloting rapid diagnostic centres which allow GPs to refer patients with less obvious symptoms.
They were set up following a fact-finding visit by Welsh cancer experts to Denmark to see how that country had transformed its cancer survival rates.
Wales has also introduced a single cancer waiting target – which is meant to reflect not only delays in getting treated but also delays in getting diagnosis.
Obviously the results in Neath Port Talbot are encouraging and will help make the case for rolling out this approach across the country but what’s clear is there is a lot more to do as Wales – and the UK as a whole – have relatively low survival cancer rates compared to similar countries.
The authors of the paper, which has been published in the British Journal of General Practice, said: “Referral to rapid diagnosis services from primary care for patients with vague and/or non-specific symptoms suspicious of cancer addresses an important un-met need and provides value for money when run near or at full capacity.
“Furthermore, it reduces time to diagnosis and has the potential to improve patient outcomes.”
They said their analysis was a conservative indication of the benefits the centre could bring, but they plan to continue the study in order to collect more data.