Thousands of people who are eventually diagnosed with cancer are not being referred to specialists quickly enough by their GPs, newly released data suggests.
According to figures from NHS England, while some GP practices show 100 per cent of patients with cancer are fast-tracked, in around 4,000 practices only a minority of patients are referred.
In some GP surgeries only around one in 10 patients who went on to be diagnosed with the disease saw a specialist within NHS England’s target of two weeks.
The findings suggest that many people are therefore diagnosed in another way.
Patients who do not consult their GP about their symptoms are sometimes diagnosed in A&E, while others have the cancer detected during routine tests.
The data shows some patients are referred straight to A&E because their symptoms are so concerning.
Stuart Barber, head of communications and campaigns at Beating Bowel Cancer, said: “It's intolerable that patients are having to wait”.
“GPs have the tools. There are clear symptoms, there is a clear screening programme and if a patient visits their doctor with what are symptoms of bowel cancer they should have the confidence they are going to be referred quickly.
”We know of cases where patients have gone multiple times backwards and forwards to their GP with what they think are bowel cancer symptoms. The symptoms get worse and worse and worse and it does turn out to be cancer.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called GP surgeries “the bedrock of our NHS”.
“Every single patient in the NHS has a right to the very best care - and to see a GP who can spot cancer symptoms early enough to make a difference.
”That's why we've introduced a rigorous new inspection regime for GP surgeries to tackle this unacceptable variation across the country.
“The new chief inspector will speak up for patients without fear or favour, rating each surgery so we can celebrate the best practices and take tough action where standards aren't up to scratch.
Mike Bewick, deputy medical director at NHS England, said the level of variation between practices is too wide and that the data offered an ”important insight for commissioners as to where we should be doing better“.
”It's meant to have a positive effect on making sure practices have best systems in place and diagnostic ability.
“When people go to their GP with red flag symptoms such as coughing up blood or changes in their bowel you would expect those patients to be picked up.
”But just imagine the scenario when you have an elderly patient with many symptoms and the one they are most worried about is not the red flag.
“It's often due to complexity rather than mistake.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association General Practitioners' Committee, warned that “simplistic league tables fail to show the complexity” of spotting cancer.
“It is important that this data is used not to unreasonably penalise GPs who are working hard to deliver consistently high standards of care to patients.”
The data was released as part of a raft of information to help patients assess how well their GP practice is performing, and also shows some variation across England on other diseases, such as stroke or heart failure.
While most GP practices refer patients who have suffered a stroke or mini-stroke for further investigation, some do not refer all their patients, and patients at risk of stroke do not get the correct medication.
According to NHS England, a huge number of factors can affect an individual GP practice's performance - from the make-up of its population through to the quality of its clinical staff.