Background: Early diagnosis is considered a key factor in improving the outcomes in cancer therapy; it remains unclear, however, whether long pre-diagnostic patient pathways influence clinical outcomes negatively. The aim of this study was to assess the association between the length of the diagnostic interval and the five-year mortality for the five most common cancers in Denmark while addressing known biases.
Methods: A total of 1128 patients with colorectal, lung, melanoma skin, breast or prostate cancer were included in a prospective, population-based study in a Danish county. The diagnostic interval was defined as the time from the first presentation of symptoms in primary care till the date of diagnosis. Each type of cancer was analysed separately and combined, and all analyses were stratified according to the general practitioner's (GP's) interpretation of the presenting symptoms. We used conditional logistic regression to estimate five-year mortality odds ratios as a function of the diagnostic interval using restricted cubic splines and adjusting for comorbidity, age, sex and type of cancer.
Results: We found increasing mortality with longer diagnostic intervals among the approximately 40% of the patients who presented in primary care with symptoms suggestive of cancer or any other serious illness. In the same group, very short diagnostic intervals were also associated with increased mortality. Patients presenting with vague symptoms not directly related to cancer or any other serious illness had longer diagnostic intervals and the same survival probability as those who presented with cancer suspicious/serious symptoms. For the former, we found no statistically significant association between the length of the diagnostic interval and mortality.
Conclusion: In full coherence with clinical logic, the healthcare system instigates prompt investigation of seriously ill patients. This likely explains the counter-intuitive findings of high mortality with short diagnostic intervals; but it does not explain the increasing mortality with longer diagnostic intervals. Thus, the study provides further evidence for the hypothesis that the length of the diagnostic interval affects mortality negatively.
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