Design: Cross-country comparison of Denmark, England and Sweden with qualitative analysis of in-depth interview accounts of the prediagnostic process in lung or bowel cancer.
Participants: 155 women and men, aged between 35 and 86 years old, diagnosed with lung or bowel cancer in 6 months before interview.
Setting: Participants recruited through primary and secondary care, social media and word of mouth. Interviews collected by social scientists or nurse researchers during 2015, mainly in participants’ homes.
Results: Participants reported difficulties in interpreting diffuse bodily sensations and symptoms and deciding when to consult. There were examples of swift referrals by primary care professionals in all three countries. In all countries, participants described difficulty deciding if and when to consult, highlighting concerns about access to general practitioner appointments and overstretched primary care services, although this appears less prominent in the Swedish data. It was not unusual for there to be more than one consultation before referral and we noted two distinct patterns of repeated consultation: (1) situations where the participant left the primary care consultation with a plan of action about what should happen next; (2) participants were unclear about under which conditions to return to the doctors. This second pattern sometimes extended over many weeks during which patients described uncertainty, and sometimes frustration, about if and when they should return and whether there were any other feasible investigations. The latter pattern appeared more evident in the interviews in England and Denmark than Sweden.
Conclusion: We suggest that if clear action plans, as part of safety netting, were routinely used in primary care consultations then uncertainty, false reassurance and the inefficiency and distress of multiple consultations could be reduced.