Prescription history could help diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier

Researchers are looking at millions of NHS records to identify if patients’ prescription histories could help doctors diagnose cancer earlier.

The most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include abdominal and mid-back pain, which can often be misdiagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or indigestion.  Before diagnosis, pancreatic cancer patients will often take prescribed or Over-the-Counter (OTC) medication, which will be unsuccessful in treating the problem.

Another sign of pancreatic cancer is new onset diabetes not associated with weight gain that does not respond to medication.

A tool that alerts doctors to the link between a prescription history and cancer, could ensure that more patients are sent for further investigation sooner and increase a patient’s chance of survival.

This research is being led by Health Data Insight Cancer Research UK’s Pioneer Awards scheme. Together with Public Health England (link is external) and the NHS Business Services Authority (link is external) they have created an anonymous dataset of nearly all the primary care prescription data – approximately 80 million medications being prescribed each month.

The researchers will then link this information to data in the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service  to look for trends in medications given to patients before they were diagnosed with cancer.

Dr Jem Rashbass, medical director at Health Data Insight, said: “We want to develop a tool that helps GPs diagnose cancer earlier in the hope of saving more lives. It can be very difficult for GPs to know which patients to refer for further tests.

“Large studies like this are only possible because anonymous data on large numbers of cancer patients is available for research through the NHS. Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up.”

Ali Stunt, chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer Action and nine-year survivor of pancreatic cancer, said: “We are very excited about this study, which is positive step towards improving early diagnosis of cancers such as pancreatic cancer.  It’s important to remember however that researchers are only looking at a patient’s prescription history, but not include Over-the-Counter drugs that they may be taking to treat their symptoms.  I was taking Gaviscon and Buscapon both before my diagnosis with pancreatic cancer which would not have been featured in my prescription history.

“Pharmacists are in a great position to spot patterns in patients who take over the counter medication to treat common pancreatic cancer symptoms,” continues Ali.  “It is common for patients who visit the pharmacy to take medication for indigestion and PPIs for dyspepsia.  This is why we are in the process of developing a pharmacy eLearning module to make pharmacists aware of the most common symptom and medication pattern of pancreatic cancer patients.

“We also encourage GPs and hospital doctors to take our eLearning modules to familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.”

Please visit https://pancreaticcanceraction.org/about-pancreatic-cancer/medical-professionals/ for more information