21 March 2024

South Yorkshire study could speed up access to bowel cancer tests

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is to play a leading role in a new study aimed at speeding up bowel cancer detection.

People in South Yorkshire with ‘red flag’ bowel cancer symptoms could bypass the GP and be fast-tracked to hospital for diagnostic tests as part of a new research study.

Funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and led by researchers at the University of Sheffield, the trial aims to demonstrate how community pharmacies can be used to speed up the detection of bowel cancer while relieving pressure on the NHS.

Those with symptoms will have the opportunity to benefit from faster, more convenient care by accessing home test kits without the need for a GP appointment.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation will be the lead NHS site for the study. All samples from test kits given out by South Yorkshire community-based pharmacists will be returned to Sheffield’s Laboratory Medicine Department for analysis.

Dr Matthew Kurien, Consultant Gastroenterologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said: “Bowel cancer kills more people than almost any other cancer, yet early detection rates in the UK still lag behind. Through this study we aim to improve early detection through innovation, prevent unnecessary deaths and uplift deprived groups often most affected by health inequalities.”

Dr Stuart Griffiths, Director of Research at Yorkshire Cancer Research said: “Each year, more than 1,000 people in South Yorkshire are diagnosed with bowel cancer, and half of these cancers are found at a late stage.

“Raising awareness of symptoms is an important way to improve early diagnosis, but it’s vital that when people do come forward for medical advice, they are able to benefit from diagnostic tests as soon as possible.”

‘Red flag’ bowel cancer symptoms include bleeding from the bottom or blood in poo, a persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness for no obvious reason and pain or a lump in the stomach.

Fast-tracking patients with 'red flag' symptoms

Pharmacists will be trained to identify these symptoms and speedily distribute FIT (Faecal Immunochemical Test) kits to people visiting the pharmacy for advice. The test detects tiny traces of blood in poo, which can be an early sign of bowel cancer.

If blood is detected, patients will be safely fast-tracked to hospital for further tests to find out if they have cancer. Those with negative FIT results will be advised to discuss their symptoms further with their GP.

The study will focus on the most deprived areas of South Yorkshire, where a shortage of GPs means people have more difficulty booking appointments.

People living in these communities have been found to be less likely to recognise symptoms of bowel cancer, so they are often diagnosed at a late stage when the cancer is harder to treat.

They are also less likely to take part in the national bowel screening programme, which is available to people aged 60 to 74 and is currently being expanded to people aged 50 to 59.

Using innovation to improve quality of life

According to NHS data, the number of people registered with GP practices in South Yorkshire increased by more than 100,000 people between October 2015 and December 2023, from 1,413,723 people to 1,515,765 people1. During the same period, the full-time and fully qualified GP workforce in the area fell from 726 doctors to 695.

This means the patient list of the average South Yorkshire GP has grown by 234 people to 2,182 in roughly eight years - an increase of 12%2.

Last year, 1,561,536 (12%) GP appointments in Yorkshire were attended more than two weeks after being booked. In South Yorkshire, this figure was 495,777 (14%) and September alone saw 49,043 (16%) appointments attended more than a fortnight after booking3.

The new study, named DETECT-CRC, is part of a collaboration between Yorkshire Cancer Research and the University of Sheffield that aims to create a hub of groundbreaking research in Sheffield, attracting talented cancer researchers and experts to the region for the benefit of everyone living in Yorkshire and beyond.

The study supports the University of Sheffield's cancer research strategy. Through the strategy, the University aims to prevent cancer-related deaths by undertaking high quality research, leading to more effective treatments, as well as methods to better prevent and detect cancer and improve quality of life.

If successful, the research will provide the evidence needed to roll out similar programmes more widely.



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