UK: A Missed Opportunity: Are Delays In Diagnosing Lung Cancer A National Trend?

Last Updated: 3 September 2012
Article by Stephen Jones

In light of the recent NHS initiative to increase awareness of lung cancer symptoms, Stephen Jones, Partner and Head of the Medical Negligence team at Pannone Solicitors, considers the worrying evidence that doctors are overlooking signs of lung cancer and the implications that late diagnosis can have for patients.

Lung cancer facts

The dire statistics about lung cancer are well known.  An estimated 96 people die from lung cancer in the UK every day.  However, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better chance the patient has to benefit from some of the remarkable, and often life saving, treatments available. 

The importance of early diagnosis is demonstrated by the following statistics take from Cancer Research - UK lung cancer - UK incidence statistics:

  • Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK (after breast cancer) and the most common cancer in the world
  • Around 113 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every day in the UK
  • Most lung cancer tumours grow slowly, over a matter of years
  • Five year survival rate with late diagnosis is around 9%
  • Five year survival rate with early diagnosis is estimated to be as much as 80%
  • Normally tumours can be seen on X-ray or CT scans before symptoms start

Our medical negligence solicitors are becoming increasingly concerned that unfortunately, doctors are missing opportunities to diagnose lung cancer.  We have noticed an increasing number of cases being reported in the media and we have several clients who have come to us for help when they are worried that there has been a delay in diagnosing lung cancer in themselves or a loved one.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, National Cancer Director for England, has recently been quoted as stating: "It is vital that cancer patients get treated quickly so they have the best chance of surviving.....Earlier diagnosis of lung cancer combined with the best treatments could help save an additional 1300 lives a year". 

When it is widely accepted that the prognosis for patients treated in the early stages of the disease is substantially improved, it is alarming that medics are missing these life saving opportunities.

When are opportunities missed?

The recent article in The Sentinel detailing the sad case of Rona O'Brien from Cheadle struck a chord with the medical lawyers in my team who are all too familiar with cases such as these.  Mrs O'Brien had an x-ray in 2008 at The University Hospital of North Stafford which showed a 1cm tumour on her lung.  However, the radiological findings were not acted upon and her tumour went untreated for 3 years.  By the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2011, it was sadly too late to save her life. 

Our team are concerned that there is a worrying trend of tumours being missed on x-rays and other scans, denying patients the opportunity of early treatment which could mean the difference between life and death. This needs to be addressed by NHS bosses to ensure that the right systems are in place and to ensure that it doesn't keep happening.  Our clients regularly tell us that one of their motivations for taking legal action is to prevent this happening to someone else so the very least NHS bosses can do is learn from these past mistakes.

We currently represent a number of patients or families of patients whose lung cancer was visible on x-rays or scans but who, sadly, were sent home without a diagnosis. Worryingly, the problem does not seem limited to one NHS Trust or category of doctor. Our cases indicate that visible tumours have been negligently missed or not followed up by radiologists, oncologists and GPs in a variety of different locations across the country.

Where does responsibility lie?

The NHS has this month launched the 'Be Clear on Cancer' campaign which aims to raise awareness of the symptoms of lung cancer. Health Minister Paul Burstow stated at the launch of the campaign that "The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of survival."  Whilst this statement is aimed at patients and the campaign aims to increase awareness in the general public, arguably the medics need to take note too.

Whilst no one expects medics to intuitively diagnose cancer without any prior indication or evidence, and whilst patients do have a responsibility to seek medical advice when needed, there can be no excuse for failing to recognise a potentially cancerous mass when it is clearly visible on scans. In our experience, abnormalities on radiology can sometimes be overlooked altogether or noticed but only reported several months later, by which time it may be too late for effective treatment to be given. Perhaps most concerning is our experience of cases when abnormalities have been noted but then the follow up is somehow lost in communications between medical practitioners and as a result the all important referral for further investigation or treatment is never made.

We welcome the 'Be Clear on Cancer' campaign which encourages patients to recognise the early symptoms of lung cancer, but patients haven't had any medical training and there should therefore also be a focused effort from healthcare providers to ensure the signs aren't missed by medical professionals themselves. Doctors need to set the example of awareness to warning signs to ensure that we are all clear on cancer.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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