Nearly 40% of people in the UK delay visiting the GP because they don’t want to bother their doctor, a Cancer Research UK survey has revealed, but this attitude could be preventing the early diagnosis of many serious diseases including cancer.

Forty one percent of women and 36% of men admitted they would delay booking a GP visit for fear of wasting the doctors time while, on the other side of the coin, 40% of women and 34% of men said fear over what the doctor might find would also put them off making an appointment.

In addition, a difference in attitudes from people from between poorer and more affluent areas was also unveiled, with those from deprived areas citing reasons such as being too embarrassed or worried over the potential diagnosis in putting off seeing the GP, while those from wealthier backgrounds were more concerned about practical barriers such as being too busy.

According to Professor Jane Wardle from Cancer Research UK's Health Behaviour Research Centre, the findings are probably more typical of society in the UK than anywhere in Europe. "If we were to carry out this survey in other countries, I suspect that the results might be different – because it is a typical British characteristic to dismiss symptoms as trivial and think ‘I mustn't bother the doctor.’”

But, she warned, “when this etiquette stops us talking to the GP about potentially serious symptoms, it can be dangerous,” and stressed that "changes to public attitudes along with changes within the healthcare system will be fundamental to making a difference”.

Compounding this reluctance to visit GPs is also a generally poor public knowledge about the symptoms of cancer, with findings from a CR UK survey in August revealing that one in seven people are unable to name a single symptom of cancer, highlighting a significant lack of awareness of the disease.

Particularly in cancer the earlier the diagnosis the better the chance of treatment success, and it is believed that a real difference could be made if symptom awareness is raised and doctor are seen as soon as symptoms first present. We believe that thousands of deaths could be avoided each year in the UK if cancers were diagnosed earlier,” said Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information.

In order to improve cancer survival the charity says it is currently working closely the Department of Health and National Health Service to promote earlier diagnosis of the disease through the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, as per the government’s 2007 Cancer Reform Strategy.

Findings from the Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM) study, which is the in the world to set a national standard method for measuring awareness of cancer symptoms and care, the charity notes, were published yesterday in the British Journal of Cancer and are to be included in the NAEDI supplement to be published in the journal later this year.

Men avoiding GPs
Meanwhile, a separate survey commissioned by Pfizer has revealed that British Men are more concerned about the state of their cars than their own health. The research found that one in 10 men ignore health issues until the problem needs immediate attention while only half that number would wait the same amount of time before taking their car to a garage.

The findings show that 61% of men avoid going to see a GP if possible, but, interestingly, 85% said they would consider discussing a health issue in confidence online. In light of these findings, Pfizer has set up a temporary online GP service, open until October 9, to enable men to get medical advice over the net.

“The online surgery has been set-up to enhance, rather than circumvent, the existing GP-patient relationship,” said Dr Berkeley Phillips, Medical Director at Pfizer. “Clearly, there are a lot of men out there who are not talking to their GP when they need to, which can lead to life-threatening conditions going undiagnosed,” he added.

Peter Baker, chief executive of Mens’ Health Forum, has also voiced support for the campaign, which he says is helping to educating men and providing a more accessible health service to them.

For a visit to the online GP service click here