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High street pharmacies spot cancers in new NHS early diagnosis drive

Posted on behalf of NHS England

People with a worrying cough, problems swallowing or blood in their urine will soon be able to be referred for scans and checks by a pharmacist, rather than having to wait to see their GP.

Customers will then be sent for scans and other checks under the initiative, which is being trialled by pharmacies as part of radical NHS action that also includes roaming liver scan trucks and a targeted genetic testing programme.

The NHS Long Term Plan committed to increasing the proportion of cancers caught early, when they are easier to treat, from half to three in four. The community pharmacy pilot, to be carried out in areas across the country, will see staff spot signs of cancer in people who might not have noticed symptoms.

Those with symptoms including a cough that lasts for three weeks or more, difficulty swallowing or blood in their urine will be referred direct for scans and checks without needing to see a GP if staff think it could be cancer.

Speaking at the NHS Confed Expo conference in Liverpool, Amanda Pritchard will say: “The NHS will not rest in our efforts to catch cancer early and save more lives.

“Throughout the pandemic, NHS staff developed new and innovative ways to ensure patients could get cancer checks and treatment as normal, including by providing COVID safe drugs and delivering chemo at home.

“NHS staff have continued this innovation; from liver trucks travelling around the country to genetic testing and high street checks, we want to make it as easy as possible for those most at risk to get vital, lifesaving tests.

“These plans have the power to truly transform the way we find and treat cancer, and ultimately spare thousands of patients and their families from avoidable pain and loss”.

From this month, roaming liver trucks will also start to offer on the spot scans for people most at risk of getting liver cancer, with hundreds of people expected to be scanned in the community as the mobile scanners visit GP practices, town centres, and foodbanks to encourage the uptake of quick, non-invasive scans.

The NHS will also launch a new programme of genetic testing for BRCA mutations for people with Jewish heritage who are at higher risk of mutations, with up to one in 40 people affected, compared with 1 in 400 in the general population.

This is expected to identify thousands more BRCA carriers over the next three years so they can seek early access to further surveillance and prevention programmes.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Ensuring patients can access diagnosis and treatment easily in their communities and on high streets is a fundamental part of our 10-Year Cancer Plan.

“Harnessing ground-breaking innovations such as this will save lives and help us achieve our ambition of being the best place in Europe for cancer care.

“This will also build on the progress we are making to tackle the COVID backlog, already delivering over one million additional scans through over 90 new community diagnostic centres and halving the number of people on the longest waiting lists in the last four months”.

Dr Anthony Cunliffe, Macmillan Cancer Support’s National Clinical Adviser for Primary Care, said: “Doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to diagnose and treat the tens of thousands of people entering a very busy cancer care system.

“This pilot will give people the opportunity to access more trained professionals in their community to get symptoms investigated, potentially getting them into the system earlier and easing pressure on frontline professionals, like GPs. The quicker someone is diagnosed, the better their chances of survival”.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re pleased to see investment in innovative models of care, such as referrals from community pharmacy teams and mobile scanners. By changing the way people engage with the health service, we have the potential to help diagnose more cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage. We look forward to seeing how these efforts will support the NHS’s ambitious early diagnosis targets”.

Helga Mangion, Policy Manager at the National Pharmacy Association, said: “Earlier diagnosis of cancer gives a better chance of successful treatment. As a highly accessible healthcare setting, pharmacies can play an important role in spotting signs of cancer and make appropriate referrals into NHS care. The community pharmacy cancer diagnosis pilot is a great opportunity to further expand the clinical role of pharmacy teams, increase early detection rates and improve outcomes for patients. This initiative builds on the skills of a highly-trained workforce and the fact that pharmacy staff know their patients well and see them regularly”.

The latest action plan follows the successful rollout of targeted lung trucks across the country, with more than 30,000 people invited for checks every month in mobile vehicles outside supermarkets and football stadiums, and hundreds of cancers diagnosed earlier.

The move also comes on the back of record numbers of people getting checked for cancer over the last year with over 2.6 million people referred between April 2021 and March 2022 and over 300,000 starting treatment.

With multiple NHS cancer awareness campaigns running over the last year, one in every four GP referrals is now for suspected cancer and the NHS has seen record numbers of people getting checked.

The NHS has been working hard to combat the public’s fear of cancer with a new campaign, launched in March, to tackle people’s cancer worries rather than highlight specific symptoms.

The campaign reached millions of people across the country and resulted in more people visiting the NHS website for support – a 17-fold increase on the previous month.

As set out in the NHS elective recovery plan, around £2.3 billion will be used to expand diagnostics and £1.5 billion for treatment, with a focus on cancer, to ensure wait times are addressed for everyone. The NHS will increase capacity to deliver around 17 million diagnostic tests over a three-year period.

NHS ‘one stop shops’ have already delivered over one million checks and tests, including for cancer, since the rollout began, with over 90 community diagnostic centres (CDCs) offering MRI, CT and other services closer to patients’ homes, often in the heart of local communities.

Read more about improving cancer survival through community pharmacy schemes here.