Pharmacists to help spot potential cancer cases and speed up NHS diagnoses

Pharmacist speaking about patients cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)
Hundreds of pharmacists in England to take part in the new cancer scheme. (Getty Images)

Pharmacists – the often unsung hero – are to be used to help check for potential cancer cases in a new NHS trial.

This is in a bid to give pharmacists more power to refer patients for cancer scans and tests, in order to improve the speed and process of diagnosis for many patients, with delays and waiting times often rife.

People with symptoms including a cough that lasts for three weeks or more, difficulty swallowing or blood in their urine will be able to see a pharmacist and be referred directly for scans and checks – all without needing to see a GP.

With hundreds of pharmacists in England to take part in the pilot scheme, this will hopefully benefit many people, with pharmacies to be invited to apply to be involved soon too.

Pharmacist speaking to patient. (Getty Images)
Your local pharmacist might turn in to your local GP when it comes to checking possible cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

On top of this, the NHS also announced plans to launch 'roaming liver trucks', which will start to offer on the spot scans for people most at risk of getting liver cancer.

Hundreds of people are also expected to be scanned in the community as the mobile scanners visit GP practices, town centres and foodbanks to encourage the uptake of quick, non-invasive scans.

This action plan follows the successful rollout of targeted 'lung trucks' across the country, with more than 30,000 people invited for checks every month in mobile vehicles outside supermarkets and football stadiums, leading to many cancers diagnosed earlier.

The health service will also launch a new programme offering genetic testing to people in Jewish communities at high risk of having a genetic mutation linked to a higher risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancers.

Up to one in 40 people of Jewish heritage carry BRCA genetic mutations, which can lead to certain cancers, compared with just one in 400 in the general population.

The NHS says this is expected to identify thousands more BRCA carriers over the next three years so they can seek early access to further surveillance and prevention programmes.

Watch: Cancer diagnoses impacted as delayed waiting times and workforce crisis grips the NHS

“The NHS will not rest in our efforts to catch cancer early and save more lives, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard will say when announcing the initiatives at the NHS Confed Expo conference in Liverpool.

“Throughout the pandemic, NHS staff developed new and innovative ways to ensure patients could get cancer checks and treatment as normal, including by providing COVID-safe drugs and delivering chemo at home.

“NHS staff have continued this innovation; from liver trucks travelling around the country to genetic testing and high street checks, we want to make it as easy as possible for those most at risk to get vital, life-saving tests.

“These plans have the power to truly transform the way we find and treat cancer, and ultimately spare thousands of patients and their families from avoidable pain and loss.”

The NHS Long Term Plan committed to increasing the proportion of cancers caught early, when they are easier to treat, from half to three in four.

“Doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to diagnose and treat the tens of thousands of people entering a very busy cancer care system," Dr Anthony Cunliffe, Macmillan Cancer Support’s National Clinical Adviser for Primary Care, said.

“This pilot will give people the opportunity to access more trained professionals in their community to get symptoms investigated, potentially getting them into the system earlier and easing pressure on frontline professionals, like GPs.

"The quicker someone is diagnosed, the better their chances of survival."

Pharmacy sign. (Getty Images)
Instead of waiting weeks to see your GP, pop in to the pharmacy. (Getty Images)

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, added, “We’re pleased to see investment in innovative models of care, such as referrals from community pharmacy teams and mobile scanners.

"By changing the way people engage with the health service, we have the potential to help diagnose more cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage. We look forward to seeing how these efforts will support the NHS’s ambitious early diagnosis targets”.

Meanwhile, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid believes "harnessing ground-breaking innovations such as this will save lives and help us achieve our ambition of being the best place in Europe for cancer care".

If you think you have potential cancer symptoms, don't delay in seeking medical advice.

Additional reporting PA.