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Missed opportunities for diagnosing brain tumours in primary care: a qualitative study of patient experiences

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

F. M. Walter, C. Penfold, A. Joannides, S. Saji, S. J. Price, M. Johnson, C. Watts, A. Brodbelt, M. D. Jenkinson, W. Hamilton, S. E. Scott

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E224-E234
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number681
Early online date28 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


King's Authors


Background Brain tumours are uncommon, and have extremely poor outcomes. Patients and GPs may find it difficult to recognise early symptoms because they are often non-specific and more likely due to other conditions.

Aim To explore patients’ experiences of symptom appraisal, help seeking, and routes to diagnosis.

Design and setting Qualitative study set in the East and North West of England.

Method In-depth interviews with adult patients recently diagnosed with a primary brain tumour and their family members were analysed thematically, using the Model of Pathways to Treatment as a conceptual framework.

Results Interviews were carried out with 39 patients. Few participants (n = 7; 18%) presented as an emergency without having had a previous GP consultation; most had had one (n = 15; 38%), two (n= 9; 23%), or more (n = 8; 21%) GP consultations. Participants experienced multiple subtle ‘changes’ rather than ‘symptoms’, often noticed by others rather than the patient, which frequently led to loss of interest or less ability to engage with daily living activities. The most common changes were in cognition (speaking, writing, comprehension, memory, concentration, and multitasking), sleep, and other ‘head feelings’ such as dizziness. Not all patients experienced a seizure, and few seizures were experienced ‘out of the blue’. Quality of communication in GP consultations played a key role in patients’ subsequent symptom appraisal and the timing of their decision to re-consult.

Conclusion Multiple subtle changes and frequent GP visits often precede brain tumour diagnosis, giving possible diagnostic opportunities for GPs. Refined community symptom awareness and GP guidance could enable more direct pathways to diagnosis, and potentially improve patient experiences and outcomes.

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