Innovation and inspiration: accelerating cancer diagnosis in general practice

Early diagnosis of cancer has the potential to save more lives than any treatment in history – but how can this be achieved, and what more can GPs do to help improve screening? Karen Livingstone, national director at SBRI Healthcare, describes how the organisation is investing in new technologies and solutions that will support GPs in the battle against cancer

Prime minister, Theresa May, recently spoke of the need to make a ‘step change’ in the way we diagnose cancer, and pointed to the potential benefits of embracing new technology in the fight. The positive impact of improving cancer detection for both patients and the wider economy cannot be understated; NHS England estimates that it could save a potential 52,000 lives per year – as well as £210 million for the cash-strapped health sector.

New technologies are high on the government’s wider healthcare agenda, with Matt Hancock, UK health secretary, most recently championing innovation as a potential saviour of the NHS.

The challenge for the health sector as a whole – and for GPs specifically – is to move from discussing innovation in the abstract to implementing tangible measures that enhance cancer screening and improve diagnosis rates. So, where to begin?

At SBRI Healthcare we decided to focus our most recent funding round on identifying in new technologies with the potential to transform cancer screening. We are investing in solutions which facilitate earlier and faster diagnosis of cancer, saving lives and money.

Concentrated efforts

We are concentrating our efforts on early diagnosis because the challenge of identifying cancer at the first GP appointment was considered almost impossible, given the range of diseases encompassed by cancer and the array of overlapping symptoms and risk factors that can cause confusion.

Typically, cancer is only diagnosed in a patient once the disease has progressed beyond its early stages and symptoms have worsened. The figures bear witness to the scale of the challenge; half of cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage of the disease and one in five only receive a diagnose at a later stage of the disease, after being admitted to an A&E department suffering pronounced symptoms.

Nevertheless, as patients’ first interaction with the health service is commonly through their GP, we have found that there is strong demand from both doctors and patients for innovations which target this critical point in the treatment pathway.

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C the signs

GPs will be reassured to hear that SBRI healthcare is supporting a range of new and innovative technologies, specifically designed to support them in diagnosing cancer earlier, which are making their way to market.

One of the most striking examples is C the Signs, a digital tool that uses artificial intelligence to identify patients most at risk of cancer as early as possible. Available as an app, or as a desktop tool, C the Signs uses advanced algorithms, combined with prioritisation systems, to distil reams of data into clear guidance for GPs.

Once the GP has provided data on the patient, their symptoms and medical history, C the Signs is able to identify which cancer – or cancers – the patient is at risk of suffering from. The system can process the information and provide guidance on the most appropriate next steps, suggesting further tests, investigations or even urgent referrals.

Incredibly, C the Signs covers the entire spectrum of cancer. It can cross-reference multiple diagnostic pathways and deliver a clear report to the GP in less than 30 seconds.

C the Signs was developed by Dr Bhavagaya Bakshi and Dr Miles Payling after experiencing at first-hand the devastating impact a late diagnosis of cancer can have on a patient – an experience which many other GPs will have, unfortunately, shared. The aim of C the Signs is to try to identify cancer early, treating the disease before not it reaches an incurable stage.

One of the reasons we think that this product works so well is that it was invented by GPs for use by GPs. It is designed to reflect and complement their natural decision-making processes, not replace them.

Ongoing challenge

I hope that the government and the medical profession will continue to harness the power of technological innovation in the fight against cancer; GPs and clinicians have a vital role to play in this battle when it comes to fostering innovation.

In my experience it is those individuals who are grappling with the realities of patient care every day that are usually best placed to identify areas where technology can deliver results. It is down to all of us in the healthcare sector to nurture and support these sparks of innovation to ensure that the benefits can be spread far and wide.

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