Study objectives: This study was undertaken to measure delays of diagnosis and to assess the causes for those delays in patients with lung cancer. In addition, the relation of delay times and survival was analyzed.
Design: A retrospective study based on patient records. Dates for symptoms, visits to doctors, investigations, treatment, and death were recorded.
Setting: Patients who were found to have lung cancer at Turku University Hospital, Finland, during 2001.
Patients: Records of 132 patients were reexamined.
Results: The median delay in patient presentation from first symptoms to first appointment with a general practitioner (GP) was 14 days. The median delay by the GP before writing a referral was 16 days, the median referral delay was 8 days, the median delay from the first visit to a specialist until the diagnosis was 15 days, and the median treatment delay was also 15 days. Thirty percent of patients received treatment within 1 month from the first hospital visit, and 61% received treatment within 2 months. The median symptom-to-treatment delay was almost 4 months. The delay in seeing a specialist was shorter in patients with advanced cancer and small cell lung cancer. About half of our patients fulfilled the criteria of the British Thoracic Society recommendations. A longer specialist treatment delay seemed to correlate with better survival in advanced disease, but it was not an independent significant factor for survival.
Conclusions: Several reasons for long delays were found, but on many occasions patients underwent numerous consecutive procedures before a diagnosis of cancer was confirmed. Shortening the diagnostic and treatment delay times might be possible with little extra cost by a multidisciplinary team approach and by rapid access to carefully planned investigations, but decreasing the patient delay might be more difficult. This study shows that long specialist treatment delays are not correlated with worse prognosis in patients with advanced disease. In patients with more limited disease, the delay time may be more critical, and if curative treatment is the goal, the diagnostic process should proceed without needless delay to avoid a situation in which curable disease becomes incurable.