Objective: A high percentage of colorectal cancer patients (CRC) present as an emergency. Our aim was to evaluate delays in referral based on patient and general practitioner (GP) factors to see if there was any difference between elective and emergency patients.
Method: Symptom questionnaires were prospectively collected from 101 consecutive patients presenting to a single colorectal unit (58 male, 43 female; median age 72 years) and entered into a database. Questionnaires assessed time from symptom onset until first GP visit, time for GP to refer, and type of admission. Symptoms and Dukes stage were noted.
Results: Fifty-eight (57%) patients presented electively and 43 (43%) as an emergency. Eighty-eight patients (87%) saw their GP of which 34 (39%) later presented as emergency; 13 (13%) did not see their GP. The median time before patients first sought medical advice was 30 days (0-1095 days). Median delay until treatment was 90 days (range 0-1460 days). Emergency patients waited a median of 11.5 days before visiting the GP, and elective a median of 49.5 days (P = 0.04) (Mann-Whitney U). Nine of 13 patients who did not see their GP presented as an emergency (median wait 44 days). The median time taken for a GP to refer to a hospital specialist was 28 days in elective patients and 14 days in the emergency group. (P = ns) Thirty (38%) patients took longer than six weeks to be referred (33% as an emergency). Thirty-six patients had Dukes A or B and took a median of 30 days to first presentation. Sixty-five had Dukes C or D and took a median of 32 days to first presentation. (P = ns)
Conclusion: Emergency patients have symptoms for less time before seeking medical advice compared to elective patients. The duration of these symptoms is unrelated to the histological stage at diagnosis. Although the majority of GPs referred CRC patients within six weeks, there was no association between time taken to refer and mode of presentation. The factors that relate to disease stage occur before symptoms are acted on.