Background: Ovarian cancer symptoms are vague and commonly occur in benign conditions; it often presents late and is diagnosed at an advanced stage when survival rates are poor. Studies of diagnostic delay in conditions with non-specific symptoms are rare.
Objectives: To study accounts of diagnostic delays in a sample of British women with ovarian cancer using Andersen's five-stage model of 'total patient delay' as an analytic framework.
Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 43 women. Maximum variation sample was recruited via GPs, clinicians, support organizations and personal contacts.
Results: Most women reported pre-diagnostic symptoms and diagnostic delays. Patient delays conformed to Andersen's first four types: 'appraisal, illness, behavioural and scheduling' delays. 'Treatment delays', attributable at least in part to a doctor or the health care system, were common and we have broken them down into five categories: non-investigation of symptoms, treatment for non-cancer causes, lack of follow-up, referral delays and system delays.
Conclusions: Our data illuminate the reasons why some British women experience delays in obtaining an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Delays attributable to the women were often compounded by doctor or health service delays, enabling us to expand the fifth stage of Andersen's model. Diagnostic delays in general practice could be minimized by better history taking, explaining the rationale for ruling out non-cancer causes, adopting an 'open-door' policy for patients whose symptoms persist, considering abdominal ultrasound scans and introducing educational sessions for GPs about ovarian cancer symptomatology.