Pharmacies to trial directly referring patients for cancer screening

The pilot will enable community pharmacy staff to spot signs of cancer in patients that they may not have noticed.
older man in consultation with pharmacist

Community pharmacies in England will take part in a pilot to spot early signs of cancer before referring patients directly for scans if necessary, the chief executive of the NHS has announced.

According to a statement issued by NHS England on 15 June 2022, Amanda Pritchard will tell delegates at the NHS ConfedExpo conference in Liverpool that the pilot is part of a wider move “to make it as easy as possible for those most at risk to get vital, lifesaving tests” for cancer.

In addition to the pilot, the NHS said it will start deploying mobile trucks from June 2022 to offer on-the-spot scans for people most at risk of getting liver cancer.

It will also launch a new programme of genetic testing for BRCA mutations in people with Jewish heritage, who are at higher risk of these mutations, with up to 1 in 40 people affected, compared with 1 in 400 in the general population.

Women with BRCA mutations are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers, while men with the mutation are at higher risk of prostate cancer.

“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,” Pritchard will state.

The community pharmacy pilot will fund staff to “spot signs of cancer in people who might not have noticed symptoms,” the NHS statement said.

“Those with symptoms, including a cough that lasts for three weeks or more, difficulty swallowing or blood in their urine, will be referred direct for scans and checks without needing to see a GP if staff think it could be cancer.”

Community pharmacies located in volunteer Cancer Alliance areas — of which there are 21 in total across the country — will trial the service first to see if it is effective in supporting the early diagnosis of cancers.

NHS England did not respond to requests for comment on how much pharmacies would be funded to provide the pilot or where the pilots would be located.

The NHS’s announcement comes days after the Department of Health and Social Care published its response to the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s review of cancer services on 7 June 2022, which highlighted that “pharmacies are well placed to spot people presenting with ‘red flag’ potential cancer symptoms during a healthy lifestyle intervention, when they come to buy medicine or pick up a prescription, or when they visit a pharmacy seeking advice”.

Helga Mangion, policy manager at the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said: “As a highly accessible healthcare setting, pharmacies can play an important role in spotting signs of cancer and make appropriate referrals into NHS care.

“The community pharmacy cancer diagnosis pilot is a great opportunity to further expand the clinical role of pharmacy teams, increase early detection rates and improve outcomes for patients.

“This initiative builds on the skills of a highly trained workforce and the fact that pharmacy staff know their patients well and see them regularly.”

Anthony Cunliffe, national clinical adviser for primary care at Macmillan Cancer Support, added that the 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 primary care”.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “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.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, June 2022, Vol 308, No 7962;308(7962)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.146478

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