What's the takeaway from the controversial British study that found that General Practitioners miss cancer diagnoses?

Male doctor in white lab coat
Are primary care doctors missing cancer diagnoses? (Getty/Saklakova)

What’s the takeaway from a new British study that looked at patients who go to the emergency room and are diagnosed with cancer?

Is it the fact that thousands of people diagnosed with cancer after an emergency room visit had already visited their general practitioner with symptoms? Or that a third of patients diagnosed with cancer had not seen a doctor before ending up in the emergency department?

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, generated headlines in British newspapers that focused on the finding that among 4,647 patients, about a quarter had seen a general practitioner about their symptoms at least three times.

But study researchers said they weren’t trying to point fingers at general practitioners. “Contrary to suggestions that emergency presentations represent ‘failures of primary care’, the present findings suggest that many emergency presenters have no prior contact with primary care,” they wrote. The patients who had seen a doctor three or more times before being diagnosed in the emergency room were more likely to have cancers that were difficult to diagnose, they found.

The headlines brought a reaction from the Royal College of General Practitioners that said timely diagnosis of cancers is a priority of doctors. “As this study shows, there are still some patients who seem to be missing or ignoring worrying symptoms until they are severe enough to send them to A&E [accident and emergency]. They are not seeing their family doctor at all, and are instead being diagnosed at a later stage as an emergency, which is known to reduce the chances of a good outcome,” said Helen Stokes-Lampard, the group’s chair, in a statement.

A recent U.S. study pointed to the need for patients to have access to a second opinion from specialists. The Mayo Clinic study found more than 20% of patients who sought a second opinion from specialists were misdiagnosed by primary care providers.