Community pharmacy pilot service to refer patients with cancer symptoms expanded

Exclusive: The East of England North Cancer Alliance and South East London Cancer Alliance plan to begin offering the NHS community pharmacy ‘early diagnosis of cancer’ pilot service in 2024.
older woman talking to pharmacist at pharmacy counter

A pilot service enabling community pharmacies to refer patients with early signs of cancer directly to secondary care has been extended to two new areas.

A spokesperson for NHS England told The Pharmaceutical Journal that East of England North Cancer Alliance and South East London Cancer Alliance have been added to the community pharmacy ‘early diagnosis of cancer’ pilot, which was first announced in June 2022.

The Pharmaceutical Journal reported in January 2023 that 40 community pharmacies in England would begin directly referring patients with possible signs of cancer across two cancer alliance areas, with pharmacies in two more cancer alliance areas beginning referrals later in 2023.

In October 2023, The Pharmaceutical Journal reported that Kent and Medway Cancer Alliance had pulled out of the project, and that referrals had only begun in areas covered by the Peninsula Cancer Alliance, which includes Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Suzanne Phillips, transformation programme cancer clinical lead at NHS Norfolk and Waveney Integrated Care Board (ICB), which sits within the East of England North Cancer Alliance, said the ICB was “excited” to participate in the pilot, with referrals planned to start in January 2024.

“We know there are some patients who may not access primary care via their GP but have symptoms that might be suggestive of cancer. Offering this community service will enable them to access the care that they need,” she said.

“Pharmacies are one of the most accessible forms of healthcare service, with the advantage of being open longer hours and in the centre of the communities they serve. Our focus will be in areas of greatest need and where early diagnosis of cancer is at its lowest.

Under the model being piloted in Norfolk and Waveney, pharmacists will refer patients suspected of cancer to the non-specific symptom pathway for further triage and onward management.

Tony Dean, chief officer of Community Pharmacy Norfolk, which is helping to develop the programme, told The Pharmaceutical Journal that the pilot would be rolled out in Norfolk with a “phased approach”, starting with around five to ten pharmacies, before it was reviewed and expanded.

“The clinical pathway will be slightly different to other areas, so we’re keen to understand and accommodate impact on partners,” Dean said.

A spokesperson for NHS South East London ICB told The Pharmaceutical Journal that its pilot service was planned to start in 2024 and would be “rolled out across some community pharmacies in the area to begin with”.

The two remaining pilot areas, Greater Manchester Cancer Alliance and Thames Valley Cancer Alliance, have experienced delays in offering the service, but a spokesperson for Greater Manchester Cancer Alliance said that progress was being made to launch the pilot before the end of 2023.

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “Detailed work is required with each cancer alliance in the pilot to work through the referral pathways, encompassing clinical, operational and digital integration so that the pathways meet the needs of the local system.”

The pilot is expected to run until the end of March 2024 “with an evaluation running alongside”, they added.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, November 2023, Vol 311, No 7979;311(7979)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2023.1.199678

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