GPs will have easier access to tests such as CT scans
GPs in England are to get speedier access to diagnostic tests to help spot less clear-cut cancer cases, Prime Minister Gordon Brown will pledge.
Patients will get key tests within two weeks of seeing their GP, he will tell the Labour Party conference on Tuesday.
It will mean faster reassurance for patients and could save thousands of lives by picking up cancers earlier, he is expected to say.
Late diagnosis has been blamed for poorer cancer survival in the UK.
The Eurocare project reported that long-term survival rate data placed the UK below the European average.
There is already a target in place for patients suspected by their GP to have cancer to be seen by a specialist within a fortnight.
And the Cancer Reform Strategy published in 2007 highlighted better detection of cancer in primary care as a priority.
Greater access to tests will enable GPs to rule out cancer or get an early diagnosis, Gordon Brown will say.
Eventually, he wants patients to have access to tests where necessary within one week of seeing their GP.
Details of funding for the additional diagnostic equipment and staff are not yet clear.
It will initially be targeted at lung, colorectal and ovarian cancers, which account for more than a third of cancer deaths and where late diagnosis is a particular problem.
But there are proposals to extend the initiative to all cancers within five years.
Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said it had been pushing for direct access to tests, such as ultrasound or CT, for patients about whom there is a suspicion of something amiss but who do not meet the criteria for urgent two-week referral.
"The two-week referral time for those patients where there is a high suspicion of cancer has made a major difference to patients and their GPs.
"But GPs would welcome the opportunity to refer patients directly for diagnostics such as MRI and CT scans, ultrasound and flexible sigmoidoscopy without having to refer to a specialist first."
He added that it would provide particular benefit in ovarian cancer, which often presented with very vague symptoms and was hard to spot.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said just purchasing new equipment was not the way to tackle poor survival rates.
He said: "We already have a shortage of radiographers which means that existing equipment is not used to full capacity.
"We also need to improve the identification of symptoms in the community - through national screening programmes and better awareness of and response to symptoms, for example."
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "Increased investment to give GPs much faster access to diagnostic tests would be a vital step towards fixing this country's cancer problem and raising our survival rates towards being the best in Europe.
"If we can detect cancer early it usually makes successful treatment more likely.
"And if the problem turns out not to be cancer, early tests help to put patients' minds at rest."
But he added that a range of approaches was needed to overcome late diagnosis.
"We would like to see more government investment in public awareness campaigns and thought given to extending cancer screening programmes."
Peter Reynolds, chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Action, said most women with ovarian cancer were currently diagnosed with later stage disease.
"GP awareness of the possible signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer is currently very low and this is another key issue that Ovarian Cancer Action is seeking to address, working in partnership with the Royal College of GPs."
Target Ovarian Cancer, which conducted a mapping exercise of the disease this summer, also welcomed the promise of early tests.
"Almost 7,000 women a year are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and the five year survival rate is very low at 30%", said Frances Reid, the charity's director of public affairs.
"Rapid access to diagnostic tests, together with much needed increases in GP levels of awareness of symptoms will help to reduce delays in diagnosis and improve the outlook for women with the disease," she continued.
Meanwhile, health minister Andy Burnham has announced the start of a one-year pilot programme using the appeal of football to raise awareness of lung, bowel and prostate cancers in men aged 55 and over.
Portsmouth FC, Brighton & Hove Albion, Blackburn Rovers, Scunthorpe United and Norwich City are taking part in the "Ahead of the Game" project to raise awareness of cancer symptoms.
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