Patients who are worried that they may have cancer but are having no luck with their GP can call a hotline for help, a health minister has told MPs.
Maria Caulfield, minister for patient safety and primary care, told the Health and Social Care Committee the NHS is piloting cancer hotlines staffed by nurse specialists as a route towards rapid diagnosis of the disease.
It came as MPs heard from patient Judith Neptial, who was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in July 2018, after going backwards and forwards to her GP for several years.
After hearing the testimony, Ms Caulfield said that, as well as new rapid diagnostic centres, the NHS is piloting the cancer hotline.
She said: “A patient themselves – if they feel that they’re not being listened to or they’re having difficulty getting assessments done – they can phone up that hotline, go through their symptoms, go through the experience that they’ve had, and that cancer nurse specialist can get them into the cancer pathway as well.
“So we’re trying to open up that it doesn’t always have to be the GP that necessarily gets them into that process, but to try and open up the opportunities to get diagnosed as quickly and easily as possible.”
Ms Caulfield was challenged by Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, who said Ms Neptial had felt brushed off and “didn’t think she was listened to”.
He added: “Surely if someone doesn’t feel they’re being listened to, the answer is not to give them a hotline so they can talk to someone else?
“What needs to happen is that, in the first place, the clinician that they’re talking to needs to listen to them. And why is it you think that the people that she talked to she felt didn’t listen to her?
“And when she found out that it was stomach cancer and she wanted to ask more details, again she felt brushed off. Surely a hotline isn’t an answer to that problem?”
Ms Caulfield said she disagreed, adding: “Very often if you’re dealing with someone who’s a generalist… so a GP is a generalist, they look after all sorts of conditions, all sorts of patients.
“If they’re not sure about symptoms, they may not take things further.
“So, even when pushed or repeated appointments come forward, they may not recognise that maybe some of the symptoms that Judith was raising could have in fact been cancer…
“Having that cancer hotline, with a specialist nurse who would pick up on Judith’s symptoms and would think we need to get this lady seen as soon as possible, is one route in.
“I’m not saying it’s the absolute solution, it’s also about training and development of the workforce as a whole… It’s also about upskilling the staff that’s there already, so they do recognise and take seriously some of the more vague symptoms that may not be obviously cancer.”
Ms Caulfield said GPs often see patients with vague symptoms and that “having rapid diagnostic centres to either exclude cancer and get people into other pathways or diagnosing cancer and getting people the support and treatment they need earlier on will not just improve survival outcomes but will hopefully help patients like Judith feel that they are being taken seriously”.
She said that, as of October, there were 159 rapid diagnostic pathways in place across England “so we are rapidly rolling this out”.
The cancer hotline was set up by St Helens and Knowsley NHS Trust during the pandemic to help people with symptoms come forward. It was judged to have positive outcomes and further trials are being developed across England.
Earlier, in her evidence to MPs, Ms Neptial described cancer as its own pandemic.
Regarding her diagnosis, she said: “Basically, I’d been going to my GP for probably a good few years beforehand.
“And I should explain that I had an underlying stomach condition so I was also under the care of a consultant. I had been losing weight, had nausea and the general symptoms that I now know are associated with cancer.
“However, because I had an underlying condition, my GP constantly referred me back to my consultant, and my consultant constantly referred me back to my GP, and this went on for years.”
She said she eventually begged her consultant to operate on her and have a look, and when she came round from the operation she was told she had terminal cancer.
“If I’m honest, the (Covid) pandemic made me feel like I was living in a death sentence,” she said.
“I’d already been told that I had a death sentence and then I was told whatever time I had couldn’t really be lived.
“And then if there was an issue, I couldn’t see anybody… there was no personal touch.
“I don’t mean to not be sympathetic to everybody else, because Covid was huge and people lost their lives and I understand that more than anybody but, my God, cancer is a pandemic.
“You know, I’m dying, people are dying daily. Do we not count? Is my life more insignificant than somebody else’s because of what I have? I don’t think so.”