Emergency hospital visits are more common among patients with bowel cancer living in the most deprived areas of the country than for those living in affluent regions, research funded by Cancer Research UK has found.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers, based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and at UCL, looked at hospital admissions data for around 65,000 patients diagnosed with the disease over a two-year period.

They found that among the 8,681 patients who died between three and 12 months after a diagnosis, around two thirds (5,809) had an emergency hospital visit before dying. But the figure was found to be around 5 percent higher among those from more deprived backgrounds.

According to the data, published in the British Journal of Cancer, nearly 40 percent (24,522) of bowel cancer patients in the study overall had at least one emergency hospital visit in the three months before their diagnosis.

However, a closer look at the figures shows a clear difference depending on background, with nearly half (46 percent) of the most deprived patients compared to a third (33 percent) of the least deprived having had an emergency hospital visit.

“We know that cancer patients from poorer areas are more likely to have emergency visits to hospital in the weeks before their diagnosis, but we found that this also happens after diagnosis. The results are puzzling, as treatment and follow-up are not meant to differ," said Dr Francisco Rubio, a lead author from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“We can’t tell why this is happening from our research alone, but this study shows us that there are problems which further research needs to look at to pinpoint answers.

"It may be that information to help people recognise the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer aren’t reaching more deprived groups. After the diagnosis there could be social factors at play, for example a lack of a support network to care for the patients.”

“Research like this is helping us find out how we can make improvements for people from more deprived groups who most need support,” added Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK.

“The NHS has been trying to reduce unplanned hospital visits for many years, so this is a challenge that the Department of Health & Social Care needs to factor into their plans if they want to reduce health inequalities and increase the number of free hospital beds. Improved access to, and availability of, GPs could help.”