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“Wasting GP’s time” is stopping people from reporting suspected cancer symptoms

08 June 2016

People have been refusing to report symptoms of cancer, as they believe that they would be wasting their GP’s time, a study finds.

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Delayed reports

A Cancer Research UK funded study explored reasons why people are more likely to worry about wasting a GP’s time and delay reporting possible symptoms of cancer.

Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to show any symptoms, and they usually start off quite subtly. Because of this, sufferers usually just put the symptoms down to something minor, such as a cough or a cold. In light of this research, it has become quite concerning that potential sufferers of asbestos-related diseases are putting off making an appointment with their GP.

Some people felt that, because of long waiting times, their GP’s would be too busy to see them, so they shouldn’t bother making an appointment unless their symptoms seemed serious.

There was also a perception that their GP just would not be interested.

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UK study

The UK study of 62 people who had reported experiencing at least one cancer symptom in the last 3 months also looked at people who use their GP services freely. These people believed that GPs cared about their patients and felt that the taxes they pay meant that they were entitled to use the service within reason.

This study, carried out at the University of Surrey and University College London, is the first study investigating what makes people – who are experiencing symptoms that could be caused by cancer – concerned about wasting their GP’s time.

“People worrying about wasting their doctor’s time is one of the challenges we need to tackle when thinking about trying to diagnose cancer earlier,” says Dr Katriina Whitaker, co-author at the University of Surrey.

“We need to get to the root of the problem and find out why people are getting worried. Not a lot of work has been done on this so far. Our study draws attention to some reasons patients put off going to their GP to check out possible cancer symptoms.”

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Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health and patient information, said: “We’ve all had times where we’ve wondered if we should go and see a GP, but getting unusual or persistent changes checked out is really important. Worrying about wasting a GP’s time should not put people off. Doctors are there to help spot cancer symptoms early when treatment is more likely to be successful and delaying a visit could save up bigger problems for later. So if you’ve noticed anything that isn’t normal for you make an appointment to see your doctor.”

Asbestos-related diseases and your GP

Symptoms for asbestos-related diseases such as pleural thickening, asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancers can take anywhere between 10 and 50 years to show, most of these conditions affect people of an older generation, often when they are 60 to 80 years old.

Because symptoms only show long after exposure to asbestos dust and fibres, and in later life, people usually put the symptoms down to just “getting old”, as they usually involve breathlessness, tiredness and difficulty breathing.

Asbestos-related diseases that cause breathlessness can often be treated, but they cannot be fully reversed. With the appropriate support, you can learn to control your breathlessness, giving you a better quality of life.

As the first point of contact for most patients, GPs hold a pivotal role in the diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease, which can make all the difference to their patients’ care and to securing their family’s future.

With an earlier diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease, more treatment options become available for patients, which often give a better quality of life than if they had started treatments any later, especially when diagnosed with a non-cancerous condition, such as pleural thickening or asbestosis. Conditions become easier to control if treatment starts earlier, and could help to prevent the patient from suffering infections or allowing the condition to worsen.

An earlier diagnosis of an asbestos-related lung cancer also shows greater benefits – the sufferer may be able to have surgery to remove the tumour. Leaving the diagnosis until it is too late may mean that the tumour has become inoperable, or even metastasised to other parts of the body.

In some cases, GPs may unfortunately not consider an asbestos-related disease as the cause for these symptoms, usually because the location of their surgery is not in an asbestos ‘hot-spot’ area. For this reason they may not have come into contact with a sufferer of an asbestos-related disease. They may be unaware that a patient’s work or family history could be the first clue to be able to explain and diagnose their lung condition.

It is important that your doctor knows about any previous exposure to asbestos, whether through work, from living close to a factory producing asbestos materials, or from a family member who worked with asbestos still having dust and fibres on their work clothes when they came home.

Further reading

Six questions that may establish whether an unexplained lung condition could be asbestos related

The role of asbestos in the UK’s high lung cancer rate is being missed and sufferers are losing out

What causes breathlessness?


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