Referral challenges for early-onset colorectal cancer: a qualitative study in UK primary care

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The incidence of early-onset colorectal cancer (EOCRC) in adults aged
To explore awareness of the increasing incidence of EOCRC, and to understand the potential barriers or facilitators faced by GPs when referring younger adults to secondary care with features indicative of EOCRC.

Design & setting
Qualitative methodology, via virtual semi-structured interviews with 17 GPs in Northern Ireland.

Reflective thematic analysis was conducted with reference to Braun and Clarke’s framework.

Three main themes were identified among participating GPs: awareness, diagnostic, and referral challenges. Awareness challenges focused on perceptions of EOCRC being solely associated with hereditary cancer syndromes, and colorectal cancer being a condition of older adults. Key diagnostic challenges centred around the commonality of lower gastrointestinal complaints and overlap in EOCRC symptoms with benign conditions. Restrictions in age-based referral guidance and a GP ‘guilt complex’ surrounding over-referral to secondary care summarised the referral challenges. Young females were perceived as being particularly disadvantaged with regard to delays in diagnosis.

This novel research outlines potential reasons for the diagnostic delays seen in patients with EOCRC from a GP perspective, and highlights many of the complicating factors that contribute to the diagnostic process.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
JournalBJGP Open
Early online date18 Oct 2023
Publication statusEarly online date - 18 Oct 2023


  • qualitative research
  • delayed diagnosis
  • general practice
  • qFIT
  • Colorectal neoplasms
  • primary health care

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