Association between use of urgent suspected cancer referral and mortality and stage at diagnosis: A 5-year national cohort study

Thomas Round*, Carolynn Gildea, Mark Ashworth, Henrik Møller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


Background There is considerable variation between GP practices in England in their use of urgent referral pathways for suspected cancer. Aim To determine the association between practice use of urgent referral and cancer stage at diagnosis and cancer patient mortality, for all cancers and the most common types of cancer (colorectal, lung, breast, and prostate). Design and setting National cohort study of 1.4 million patients diagnosed with cancer in England between 2011 and 2015. Method The cohort was stratified according to quintiles of urgent referral metrics. Cox proportional hazards regression was used to quantify risk of death, and logistic regression to calculate odds of late-stage (III/IV) versus early-stage (I/ II) cancers in relation to referral quintiles and cancer type. Results Cancer patients from the highest referring practices had a lower hazard of death (hazard ratio [HR] = 0.96; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.95 to 0.97), with similar patterns for individual cancers: colorectal (HR = 0.95; CI = 0.93 to 0.97); lung (HR = 0.95; CI = 0.94 to 0.97); breast (HR = 0.96; CI = 0.93 to 0.99); and prostate (HR = 0.88; CI = 0.85 to 0.91). Similarly, for cancer patients from these practices, there were lower odds of late-stage diagnosis for individual cancer types, except for colorectal cancer. Conclusion Higher practice use of referrals for suspected cancer is associated with lower mortality for the four most common types of cancer. A significant proportion of the observed mortality reduction is likely due to earlier stage at diagnosis, except for colorectal cancer. This adds to evidence supporting the lowering of referral thresholds and consequent increased use of urgent referral for suspected cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E389-E398
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number695
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


  • Cancer
  • Consultation
  • Early diagnosis
  • General practice
  • Primary care
  • Referral


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