Delays in diagnosis: Ovarian cancer

19 April 2012

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women and it is commonly diagnosed at an advanced stage due to the non-specific nature of its symptoms and the fact that many sufferers are asymptomatic until the disease is in the advanced stages. 

The Guardian recently reported on a review of 209 complaints against GPs relating to ovarian cancer undertaken by the Medical Defence Union (MDU). Dr Rachel Sutcliffe, an MDU medico-legal adviser is reported as saying, "In the majority of cases the doctor was accused of making an incorrect diagnosis, although failing to exclude ovarian cancer when there was a family history of the condition and delays in referring patients for tests or to a specialist were also factors. Sadly in at least 59 cases where the outcome was known, the patient died from the cancer."

The Guardian’s article states that of the 209 complaints, 84% alleged a delay in diagnosis.  However, of these complaints only 71 claims had resulted and only 8 of these claims had been settled.  The MDU is reported as describing ovarian cancer as “a significant diagnostic challenge” and it is easy to see that such claims might have been vigorously defended.

However, NICE guidance entitled “The recognition and initial management of ovarian cancer” was published last year.  This sets out detailed guidance for primary care practitioners on the appropriate investigation and treatment of women presenting with possible symptoms of ovarian cancer including: urgent referral for women presenting with an unexplained abdominal mass; instigation of tests for women complaining of symptoms which can be suggestive of ovarian cancer or, in women over 50, suggestive of irritable bowel syndrome; and importantly, specific guidance on advising women not suspected of having ovarian cancer to return if their symptoms increase in persistence or frequency.

It is hoped that the 2011 NICE guidance improves awareness of the condition and correspondingly improves referral rates and facilitates earlier diagnosis.  However, for patients not diagnosed early, who have presented with the listed symptoms and not received the recommended levels of care, the chances of succeeding in a claim may be greater than before.

If you would like advice regarding a delay in being referred for investigations by your GP or regarding cancer treatment generally, please contact the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team on 020 7814 1200 or by email at

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