50 per cent increase of women attending GP’s with breast cancer symptoms

Recent reports in the press have suggested a 50 per cent increase in the number of women consulting their GP’s with breast cancer symptoms. breast-cancer-awareness-campaign-hailed-as-success.20546607 The ISD (Information Services Division) in Scotland have produced a report 2013-03-26-GP-Breast-Symptoms-Summary on GP consultations for the three months from September to November 2012. Whilst the actual figures are not accurate i.e. they have been extrapolated from a small cross section of sample GP surgeries, the Scottish Government has been quick to attribute this increase to their ‘successful’ Detect Cancer Early Campaign with Elaine C Smith earlier in the year. Undoubtedly the public profile of the campaign has increased the number of consultations. However, a certain amount of spin has been placed on this story deflecting somewhat from the actual reality of the report.

Quoting directly from the report:-“There is no specific information available on the number of women consulting their GP with early signs of breast cancer in Scotland” and “We do not know how many of these women who consulted with these breast symptoms went on to be diagnosed with breast cancer“. It could be argued that even if only one woman has had her life saved (or even extended) because of the Detect Cancer Early campaign, then it will have been worthwhile and could be deemed ‘a success’. However, we are very far from drawing any such conclusion. Firstly, we need to know how many extra breast cancers were detected during this period – not how many consultations took place. But, more importantly, we need to know  how many lives were actually saved because of the campaign – and we won’t know this for many years down the line. As with screening, detecting cancer early does not always mean saving a life.

The Detect Cancer Early Campaign, which is still ongoing, is costing £30 million of scarce NHS resources and that does not include the >7,o00 extra GP consultations or any follow up tests for possibly benign disease. Are there more efficient ways of getting the “Breast Awareness” message across? How far would £30m have gone towards improving breast cancer services (including waiting times for radiotherapy and lymphoedema clinics) for the women of Scotland  for those women already diagnosed? And when will this level funding be directed towards primary prevention?

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