Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) can be difficult to diagnose. Not only is the post-nasal space (PNS) inaccessible to examination, it is frequently occupied by normal lympho-epithelium which can make differentiation from NPC difficult. Together with its frequent atypical presentation, it is not surprising that the diagnosis is missed or delayed. This is undesirable as the treatment of early NPC carries an excellent prognosis. The aim of this study is to ascertain the extent of the problem of missed or delayed diagnosis and to study the factors responsible.
This was a retrospective study of all newly diagnosed patients with NPC from the Singapore General Hospital and treated in the Department of Therapeutic Radiology in the year 1996 (1 January-31 December).
A total of 126 patients were studied. Eighteen patients (14.3 per cent) were found to have delayed diagnosis of more than a month. The delay ranged from 1.2 to 25 months (mean 7.2 months). Factors identified which contributed to delayed diagnosis included i) Clinicians not considering a diagnosis of NPC ii) Clinicians suspecting NPC but misled by the results of investigations iii) Patients refusing investigation or defaulting follow-up.
Nearly a fifth of patients with NPC had delayed diagnosis. Many of the factors responsible for the delays appear to be preventable by better patient education and counselling, doctors having sharper clinical acument and skills in NPC diagnosis and the hospital administration having a system of tracking down high risk patients who default.