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Feature Medicine and the Media

How many new cancers are diagnosed after emergency admission?

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 20 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6857
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}

And what conclusions about general practitioners’ performance can be drawn from these statistics? It’s more complicated than the newspapers might have us believe, finds Margaret McCartney

On 18 October, NHS England London tweeted, “Did you know? A third of cancer diagnoses are still only made in A+E [accident and emergency].” A few days earlier, the Teenage Cancer Trust had released a report that concluded that “over a third of young people with cancer” are diagnosed through admission to emergency departments.1

Last year, there was widespread media coverage when the National Cancer Intelligence Network, part of Public Health England, reported findings2 that led to headlines such as the BBC’s “‘Too many’ cancers only diagnosed in A&E, study suggests.”3 The article reported Jane Maher, chief medical officer at the charity Macmillan Cancer Support, as saying, “It is appalling that so many cancer patients are still diagnosed through emergency admissions. It can be more difficult to spot cancer symptoms in older people who have other health conditions but this does not excuse such a high number of people being diagnosed in this way.”3

The NHS England tweet was incorrect and was later clarified. It used the same fraction of “a third” as data publicised by the Teenage Cancer Trust, which it had taken from its own annual survey. This found that of 300 young patients with cancer, 111 (37%) had had their condition diagnosed when visiting …

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