International variation in adherence to referral guidelines for suspected cancer: a secondary analysis of survey data

Brian D. Nicholson, David Mant, Richard D Neal, Nigel Hart, Willie Hamilton, Bethany Shinkins, Greg Rubin, Peter W Rose

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Variation in cancer survival persists between comparable nations and appears to be due, in part, to primary care practitioners (PCPs) having different thresholds for acting definitively in response to cancer-related symptoms. Aim: To explore whether cancer guidelines, and adherence to them, differ between jurisdictions and impacts on PCPs’ propensity to take definitive action on cancer-related symptoms. Design and setting: A secondary analysis of survey data from six countries (10 jurisdictions) participating in the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership. Method: PCPs’ responses to five clinical vignettes presenting symptoms and signs of lung (n = 2), colorectal (n = 2), and ovarian cancer (n = 1) were compared with investigation and referral recommendations in cancer guidelines. Results: Nine jurisdictions had guidelines covering the two colorectal vignettes. For the lung vignettes, although eight jurisdictions had guidelines for the first, the second was covered by a Swedish guideline alone. Only the UK and Denmark had an ovarian cancer guideline. Survey responses of 2795 PCPs (crude response rate: 12%) were analysed. Guideline adherence ranged from 20–82%. UK adherence was lower than other jurisdictions for the lung vignette covered by the guidance (47% versus 58%; P <0.01) but similar (45% versus 46%) or higher (67% versus 38%; P <0.01) for the two colorectal vignettes. PCPs took definitive action least often when a guideline recommended a non-definitive action or made no recommendation. UK PCPs adhered to recommendations for definitive action less than their counterparts (P <0.01). There was no association between jurisdictional guideline adherence and 1-year survival. Conclusion: Cancer guideline content is variable between similarly developed nations and poor guideline adherence does not explain differential survival. Guidelines that fail to cover high-risk presentations or that recommend non-definitive action may reduce definitive diagnostic action.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e106-e113
JournalThe British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners
Issue number643
Early online date07 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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