By Caroline Price
Cancer referral rates vary markedly across England, reveal data published today by the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN).
Urgent referrals vary more than three-fold, ranging from 830 to over 2,550 in every 100,000 patients each year, says the Network.
The proportion of referrals that go on to be diagnosed with cancer also varies considerably, from a low of 2.3% in Hammersmith and Fulham to a high of 15.6% in Herefordshire.
Information was sourced from various datasets over 2008-2011 and is available on the NCIN website for the large majority of practices.
Dr Mick Peake, clinical lead for the NCIN, said: "The data are not easy to interpret since we do not know what the 'optimum' level is for these measures and although data are adjusted for age, there may be other differences in the characteristics of the patients of a particular GP practice that impact on local referral rates. However, the range of the variation is so wide that, at the extremes it probably reflects differing standards of care."
The NCIN says the data "have already proved valuable to practices", for benchmarking referred patients' outcomes, and area now being made available publicly as part of the Government's open data strategy.
Di Riley, associated director of the NCIN clinical outcomes programme, commented: "Although the number of people GPs refer isn't on its own an indicator of how good they are at spotting the early signs of cancer, it's clear from these data that there's variation that needs to be addressed.
"It's important to remember that GPs have a hard job and many of the symptoms of cancer are very similar to many other illnesses. But we must do more to understand the reasons for the variation."
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