Report highlights missed lung cancer diagnosis despite multiple GP visits

The latest report published by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) explores the impact of the missed detection of lung cancer on chest X-rays of patients being seen in primary care.

The national investigation was triggered by a reference case focusing on a 50-year-old woman, who visited her GP multiple times over the course of a year with respiratory symptoms. The three chest X-rays she had during this time did not identify her lung cancer and the lady was finally diagnosed with a CT scan. She is still undergoing cancer treatment.

The report highlights that the delayed diagnosis of lung cancer has a wide geographic spread and is well recognised as a national safety risk. Research cited in the report highlights that estimated five-year survival rates in the UK are among the lowest in Europe. This reflects the fact that two-thirds of patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage.

Following analysis of the reference case, the HSIB examined the national context and considered the factors that contribute to this delay when patients repeatedly attend primary care with non-specific symptoms.

The national investigation identified that lung cancer in people who don’t have the usual risk factors, in particular, smoking, is increasing. However, the close link between smoking and lung cancer together with the often non-specific symptoms of the disease creates a significant diagnostic challenge for GPs. In the reference case, for example, the patient was considered low risk because she had never smoked.

Key findings also focused on the use of chest X-rays as they are the recommended first test to assess for lung cancer. However, the report emphasises that X-rays can be difficult to interpret, and notes evidence that shows one in five cancers are missed. Even if the patient has ongoing symptoms, a chest X-ray that does not identify a lung cancer has the potential to falsely reassure GPs.

The report concludes with three recommendations. These focus on commissioning research to evaluate how clinical and cost-effective low-dose CT scans are compared to chest X-rays to assess for lung cancer in symptomatic patients seen in primary care.

It also recommends reviewing and improving safety netting advice for health professionals and creating guidance to support independent benchmarking of artificial intelligence (AI) designed for the identification of lung diseases such as cancer.

Kathryn Whitehill, Principal National Investigator at HSIB says:

“Delayed diagnosis of lung cancer is a well-known safety issue across England and it was prioritised by HSIB as a theme for national investigation. Even though there has been advances in diagnostic technology, we wanted to understand why the risk remained of missing lung cancer on chest X-rays and explore the complexities associated with making improvements to the diagnostic process.

“While smoking is still the key risk factor for lung cancer, our report emphasised that it is increasing in those that have never smoked. The continued focus on the smoking link, across the media and public messaging, can exacerbate the existing diagnostic challenge for GPs and heighten the risk that a lung cancer is missed. The investigation’s findings, safety recommendations and safety observation aim to facilitate the timely diagnosis of lung cancer and so improve care for patients across the NHS.”

You can read the full report here.

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