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The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence referral guidelines prompting urgent two-week referrals were updated in 2015. Additional symptoms with a lower threshold of 3 per cent positive predictive values were integrated. This study aimed to examine whether current pan-London urgent referral guidelines for suspected head and neck cancer lead to efficient and accurate referrals by assessing frequency of presenting symptoms and risk factors, and examining their correlation with positive cancer diagnoses.
The risk factors and symptoms of 984 consecutive patients (over a six-month period in 2016) were collected retrospectively from urgent referral letters to University College London Hospital for suspected head and neck cancer.
Only 37 referrals (3.76 per cent) resulted in a head and neck cancer diagnosis. Four of the 23 recommended symptoms demonstrated statistically significant results. Nine of the 23 symptoms had a positive predictive value of over 3 per cent.
The findings indicate that the current referral guidelines are not effective at detecting patients with cancer. Detection rates have decreased from 10–15 per cent to 3.76 per cent. A review of the current head and neck cancer referral guidelines is recommended, along with further data collection for comparison.
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