UK survey finds deep ethnic divisions in cancer diagnosis

ethnic disparities in diagnosis

A UK report has found that people from minority ethnic backgrounds face an average delay of a year between first noticing symptoms and gaining a diagnosis, which is more than twice as long as white people.

The ‘1,000 voices, not 1’ report – commissioned by Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Shine Cancer Support charity and based on a YouGov patient survey – found that the average wait was 11.9 months for ethnic minorities versus 4.9 months for white people, delaying the opportunity to start potentially life-saving treatment.

It has been published alongside a new BMS campaign to try to understand the reasons for the disparity, called Cancer Equals, and comes as there are increasing concerns about widening health inequality within the UK, exacerbated by the cost of living crisis.

A recent UK Institute of Health Equity report estimated that, if everyone in the UK had the same health outcomes as the most advantaged, then 2.8 million years free of limiting illness or disability could be gained.

Meanwhile, a study published by UCL researchers has found that cancer survival rates in the UK are lagging behind other countries by around 10 to 15 years because of lower use of standard treatment and longer wait times.

BMS and Shine Cancer Support suggest that drivers of diagnostic delays could include low awareness of cancer and its associated symptoms, and challenges accessing services, which are particularly problematic in cancer. They point to research suggesting that every month delayed in cancer treatment can raise the risk of death by around 10%.

The new report found that people from minority ethnic groups were more likely to attribute their symptoms to other conditions than white people (51% versus 31%) and were more likely not to take the symptoms seriously (34% vs 21%).

Moreover, they reported greater difficulty getting an appointment to see a GP (25% vs 16%) and in being able to take time off work to attend (18% vs 4%). Another finding from the survey is that people from minorities are more likely to be worried about wasting NHS time and resources.

“When I first went to the GP, I had all the symptoms, but I couldn’t link them because I had no idea they were related,” said Precious, a British woman of Nigerian heritage living in London, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) at age 33.

“It took me collapsing at a train station to finally be diagnosed in A&E,” she added. “I come from a community that doesn’t talk about cancer, and people do not get the help they should.”

Last year, Cancer Research UK said that gains made by the UK on cancer survival rates in recent decades could go into reverse, due to a failure to identify patients with earlier-stage cancers and delays in starting treatment.

BMS said it is planning to set up a Cancer Equals Coalition of patient advocates, experts, and policymakers to try to find solutions to the problem of unequal access to care.

“By taking action to reduce health inequalities, we can help to improve people’s lives, reduce costs to the health system, and benefit the nation as a whole,” said Robert Braun, haematology-oncology disease area head at BMS UK & Ireland.