Consultations for clinical features of possible cancer and associated urgent referrals before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: an observational cohort study from English primary care
Nicholson BD., Ordóñez-Mena JM., Lay-Flurrie S., Sheppard JP., Liyanage H., McGagh D., Sherlock J., Williams J., Smith M., Drakesmith CW., Thomas NPB., Morris EJA., Perera R., de Lusignan S., Hobbs FDR., Bankhead CR.
Background: It remains unclear to what extent reductions in urgent referrals for suspected cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic were the result of fewer patients attending primary care compared to GPs referring fewer patients. Methods: Cohort study including electronic health records data from 8,192,069 patients from 663 English practices. Weekly consultation rates, cumulative consultations and referrals were calculated for 28 clinical features from the NICE suspected cancer guidelines. Clinical feature consultation rate ratios (CRR) and urgent referral rate ratios (RRR) compared time periods in 2020 with 2019. Findings: Consultations for cancer clinical features decreased by 24.19% (95% CI: 24.04–24.34%) between 2019 and 2020, particularly in the 6–12 weeks following the first national lockdown. Urgent referrals for clinical features decreased by 10.47% (95% CI: 9.82–11.12%) between 2019 and 2020. Overall, once patients consulted with primary care, GPs urgently referred a similar or greater proportion of patients compared to previous years. Conclusion: Due to the significant fall in patients consulting with clinical features of cancer there was a lower than expected number of urgent referrals in 2020. Sustained efforts should be made throughout the pandemic to encourage the public to consult their GP with cancer clinical features.