Background: It has been suggested that cancer registries in England are too dependent on processing of information from death certificates, and consequently that cancer survival statistics reported for England are systematically biased and too low.
Methods: We have linked routine cancer registration records for colorectal, lung, and breast cancer patients with information from the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) database for the period 2001-2007. Based on record linkage with the HES database, records missing in the cancer register were identified, and dates of diagnosis were revised. The effects of those revisions on the estimated survival time and proportion of patients surviving for 1 year or more were studied. Cases that were absent in the cancer register and present in the HES data with a relevant diagnosis code and a relevant surgery code were used to estimate (a) the completeness of the cancer register. Differences in survival times calculated from the two data sources were used to estimate (b) the possible extent of error in the recorded survival time in the cancer register. Finally, we combined (a) and (b) to estimate (c) the resulting differences in 1-year cumulative survival estimates.
Results: Completeness of case ascertainment in English cancer registries is high, around 98-99%. Using HES data added 1.9%, 0.4% and 2.0% to the number of colorectal, lung, and breast cancer registrations, respectively. Around 5-6% of rapidly fatal cancer registrations had survival time extended by more than a month, and almost 3% of rapidly fatal breast cancer records were extended by more than a year. The resulting impact on estimates of 1-year survival was small, amounting to 1.0, 0.8, and 0.4 percentage points for colorectal, lung, and breast cancer, respectively.
Interpretation: English cancer registration data cannot be dismissed as unfit for the purpose of cancer survival analysis. However, investigators should retain a critical attitude to data quality and sources of error in international cancer survival studies.