Cancer suspicion in general practice, urgent referral, and time to diagnosis: a population-based GP survey nested within a feasibility study using information technology to flag-up patients with symptoms of colorectal cancer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham, U.K.
  • University of Exeter
  • Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham


Background: Patients with symptoms of possible colorectal cancer are not always referred for investigation. Aim: To ascertain barriers and facilitators to GP referral of patients meeting the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for urgent referral for suspected colorectal cancer. Design & setting: Qualitative study in the context of a feasibility study using information technology in GP practices to flag-up patients meeting urgent referral criteria for colorectal cancer. Method: Semi-structured interview with 18 GPs and 12 practice managers, focusing on early detection of colorectal cancer, issues in the use of information technology to identify patients and GP referral of these patients for further investigation were audiotaped, transcribed verbatim, and analysed according to emergent themes. Results: There were two main themes: wide variation in willingness to refer and uncertainty about whether to refer; and barriers to referral. Three key messages emerged: there was a desire to avoid over-referral, lack of knowledge of guidelines, and the use of individually-derived decision rules for further investigation or referral of symptoms. Some GPs were unaware that iron deficiency anaemia or persistent diarrhoea are urgent referral criteria. Alternatives to urgent referral included undertaking no investigations, trials of iron therapy, use of faecal occult blood tests (FOBt) and non-urgent referral. In minority ethnic groups (South Asians) anaemia was often accepted as normal. Concerns about over-referral were linked to financial pressures and perceived criticism by healthcare commissioners, and a reluctance to scare patients by discussing suspected cancer. Conclusion: GPs’ lack of awareness of referral guidelines and concerns about over-referral are barriers to early diagnosis of colorectal cancer.


Original languageEnglish
Article numberBJGP-2016-0725
Number of pages13
JournalBJGP Open
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2017