Thousands of cancer diagnoses could be missed each year under Labour’s plans for self-referrals on the NHS, new figures suggest.
Sir Keir Starmer wants patients suffering back pain to bypass their GP and go straight to a physiotherapist.
But new analysis suggests more than 5,000 cancer diagnoses could be missed each year under the proposal.
Just over 1 per cent of cancer cases have back pain as the only symptom, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Oncology.
Sir Keir Starmer wants patients suffering back pain to bypass their GP and go straight to a physiotherapist
Some 391,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK in 2019 and the Lancet findings suggest 5,083 of those would have experienced only back pain.
Shockingly, 58 per cent of those who reported back pain as their only symptom for the disease were diagnosed with stage four cancer, the most serious, according to the study.
Sir Keir last month announced his plan for many patients to refer themselves for medical care without having to see a GP first.
He said self-referrals would cut down on ‘bureaucratic nonsense’ within the health service but doctors have warned it would result in medical specialists being ‘inundated’ by the worried well.
Sir Keir argued it ‘ought to be possible’ for someone with back pain who wants to see a physio to self-refer.
But the new analysis, by the Conservative Research Department, suggests his plan could have deadly consequences.
Tory party vice-chairman Paul Holmes said Sir Keir’s ‘DIY doctor’ approach was ‘highly dangerous’.
The MP for Eastleigh added: ‘This supposed ‘plan for patients’ is irresponsibly dishing out medical advice off the cuff and would shift the burden of understanding and diagnosing from trained medical professionals to unwitting and vulnerable patients.
‘He should withdraw his comments immediately and apologise.’
A Labour source said Sir Keir cited the example of patients referring themselves to physiotherapists because it already happens in some areas of the country – and dismissed the Tory analysis as ‘scaremongering’.
Dr Kieran Sharrock, acting chairman of the GP committee of the British Medical Association (BMA) in England, said GPs were key to diagnosing cancers and self-referrals would add to pressure on already overwhelmed hospitals.
He added: ‘Thousands of cancer diagnoses a year are the result of GPs noticing problems that would have otherwise have been totally missed.
‘NHS hospitals are already overwhelmed and mass self-referral would only make the problem worse.
‘This essential service of general practice is under threat because of Government failure to invest and plan for its future, with England down almost 2,000 full-time GPs since 2015, so the Government needs to act now if patients are going to continue to receive these life-saving early diagnoses.’
Some 391,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK in 2019 and the Lancet findings suggest 5,083 of those would have experienced only back pain
Some 42 per cent of people believe patients should not be able to refer themselves directly to specialists, compared with 39 per cent who back the plan, a Redfield and Wilton poll for Politico found.
Announcing Labour’s plans, Sir Keir told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show last month: ‘One of the proposals we’ve put forward is, would it not be possible to consider self-referral so that individuals don’t have to go to a doctor, and use up a doctor’s time, in order to get referred to specialist help?
‘If you’ve got back pain and you want to see a physio, it ought to be possible, I think, to self-refer.
‘If you’ve got internal bleeding and you just need a test, there ought to be a way that doesn’t involve going to see a GP.’
Labour said that under its proposals, self-referrals would not be used for those with suspected cancer or those needing to see a consultant.
But doctors were quick to criticise the plans, with Dr David Wrigley, of the BMA, warning that self-referrals would likely add to pressure on the health service.
He said: ‘Patients could refer themselves unnecessarily or to the wrong specialty, creating higher demand on hospitals and longer waiting times for those who really need specialised care.’
Tory party vice-chairman Paul Holmes (pictured with Boris Johnson in May) said last night Sir Keir’s ‘DIY doctor’ approach was ‘highly dangerous’
The study published in the Lancet Oncology journal in 2020 analysed data for 7,997 patients in England who were 25 years and older with one of 12 types of solid tumours.
It found that 107 in the sample had back pain as the only symptom of the disease – totalling 1.33 per cent.
Some 391,000 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer in 2019, according to a Macmillan Cancer Support fact sheet published last year.
Therefore, an estimated 5,083 cancer diagnoses could be missed each year in the UK, according to analysis by the Conservative Research Department.
A Labour source said: ‘Keir used the example of self-referral to physiotherapists because it is already happening in some parts of the country.
‘If the Conservatives believe that is bad for patients, why is it happening on their watch?
‘This desperate scaremongering from the Conservatives shows the choice at the next election is Labour reform versus Conservative defence of a broken status quo.’
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