Community pharmacists across Great Britain are playing an important role in helping to secure earlier detection of lung cancer - currently the nation's number one cancer killer.

Lung cancer has a relatively low survival rate compared with other major cancers, and a key reason for this is that the disease is not detected early enough. 

Despite the fact that the majority of lung cancer patients - around 90% or so - have symptoms at the point of diagnosis, these symptoms are also common with other minor ailments, which can prevent diagnosis and therefore impact the chance of treatment success.

According to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, patients often self_manage their symptoms through pharmacy, and so pharmacists are ideally placed to identify those who may be at risk from the disease but might not otherwise see a GP, it says.

“Lung cancer survival rates improve the earlier a diagnosis is made, so it is vital that pharmacists and their staff are aware of the relevant signs and symptoms in patients," noted RPSGB spokesperson Graham Phillips.

Results of a clinical audit of pharmacy consultations by the Society showed that the rate of referral to GPs by pharmacists rose with the number of symptoms - such as persistent cough, worsening/changing cough, persistent chest infection and persistent tiredness - presented by the patient.

29% referred on

Twenty-nine percent of consultations resulted in a GP referral, with 63% of patients presenting with two or more relevant symptoms, 73% of those with three or more and 85% with five or more being sent on to the doctor. 

The findings provide "important evidence that patients in at risk age groups are presenting at community pharmacies with a range of the key signs and symptoms of lung cancer," and, crucially, that "pharmacists are making appropriate referrals to GPs", the Society said.

However, it also noted that in order to generate more robust evidence in support of the role pharmacy has to play in early cancer detection and quantify its impact, pharmacy interventions must be linked with patient outcomes, by tracking those patients referred by pharmacists to GPs. 

The Society is currently gathering evidence to help formalise the role of pharmacists in public health, as many believe they are an under-utilised resource in the National Health Service.

Better use of pharmacists

Last year a research paper by The Bow Group Health Policy Committee found that more than £1 billion could be saved by the NHS through better use of pharmacists in improving outcomes in public health and long-term conditions.

On a separate note, in a bid to increase local awareness of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer NHS Hertfordshire is forking out thousands of pounds on 'coughing' bus shelters throughout the region.

The specially designed bus shelters contain a sound chip that plays the sound of coughing as people approach, as part of an innovative public awareness campaign designed to help remind those with a persistent cough to visit their GP as soon as possible.