The time taken to diagnose certain common cancers, from the point when a patient first reports a possible symptom to their GP, fell in adults by an average of five days, following the launch of NICE guidelines on cancer referral.
Researchers found that the average time it took to be diagnosed for a range of common cancers combined fell from 125 days in 2001/2002 to 120 days in 2007/2008.
Overall, there was a reduction in the time taken from first presentation to diagnosis for 15 cancers.
For kidney, head and neck, and bladder cancers, more than two weeks were shaved off the time between first reporting a possible symptom and receiving a diagnosis.
The researchers suggest that the improvement may be thanks to the 2005 publication of NICE guidelines for urgent referral of suspected cancer.
The guidelines give GPs advice about symptoms which might indicate cancer and mean the patient should be urgently referred for further testing.
Patients whose symptoms were prioritised by the NICE guidelines took less time to be diagnosed, and breast and testicular cancers were diagnosed in the shortest time - on average around two months between first reported symptom and diagnosis.
For the study, researchers based at the Universities of Bangor, Exeter and Durham looked at the GP records of more than 20,000 people over 40 in England who were diagnosed with one of 15 types of common cancers in the two periods, having re-ported possible symptoms to their GP in the year before their diagnosis.
Lead researcher Richard Neal, Professor of Primary Care Medicine at Bangor University, said: “Our study shows that there was a small but significant improvement overall in diagnosis times for many cancers between 2001/2002 and 2007/2008. And this is likely, at least in part, to be as a result of the introduction of the 2005 NICE urgent referral guidelines.”
Fellow study author Professor Greg Rubin, from Durham University and Clinical Lead for Cancer for the Royal College of GPs and Cancer Research UK partnership, said: “Diagnosing cancers early can make a real difference to survival. We know that patients' chances of beating the disease are better when the disease is caught early as treatments are more effective before the cancer begins to grow or spread.”
Professor Mark Baker, Director of the Centre for Clinical Practice at NICE said: “This research highlights the positive impact that NICE's guideline on urgent referral for suspected cancer has had.
“Diagnosing cancer can be difficult in primary care as patients can present with symptoms of cancer that can also be caused by other, much less serious, conditions.
“It's clearly vital for GPs to have access to good quality information to make the best decisions for their patients. This NICE guideline gives them clear advice on which symptoms should prompt an urgent referral for further investigation.”
NICE is currently in the process of uploading the urgent referral of suspected cancer guideline for publication in May 2015.