Loyalty card data from supermarket schemes could help identify ovarian cancer symptoms before a patient has presented at a GP surgery, enabling earlier diagnosis.

Researchers found that pain and indigestion medication purchases were higher in women who were subsequently diagnosed with ovarian cancer compared to women who did not have ovarian cancer.

The change in purchasing patterns of the over-the-counter (OTC) medications could be seen eight months before diagnosis.

The study findings, published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, suggest that facilitating earlier presentation among those who self-care for symptoms using loyalty card data could improve ovarian cancer patients’ treatment options and survival.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the UK. 93% of people diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive for five years or more if diagnosed at stage 1 compared to just 13% when diagnosed at stage 4. For a fifth of women with ovarian cancer, diagnosis is in A&E, and many do not receive any treatment often because they are too unwell by the time the cancer has been identified.

Early symptoms of ovarian cancer can include a loss of appetite, stomach pain and bloating, leading to some people buying OTC medication to alleviate symptoms of pain and indigestion rather than visiting the GP.

Researchers analysed the OTC medication buying habits for 153 women prior to diagnosis with ovarian cancer and compared it to the patterns seen in 120 women without ovarian cancer, using loyalty card data from two UK-based high street retailers over a period of six years.

The study participants also completed a questionnaire about the symptoms they experienced and the number of visits to their GP  in the year leading up to cancer referral or diagnosis.

The most significant difference in OTC medication purchasing patterns between women with ovarian cancer and those without was seen eight months before diagnosis. An increase in indigestion medication purchases was detected up to nine months before diagnosis.

The survey results showed that, on average, participants with ovarian cancer began to recognise their symptoms about four and a half months before diagnosis. Of those who visited a GP to check their symptoms, the first visit occurred, on average, about three and a half months before diagnosis.

Dr Yasemin Hirst from University College London said’ ‘Self-care is an important part of recognising and managing the early signs and symptoms of cancer which could resemble common illnesses and can be cared for without the guidance from healthcare provider. It is, therefore, crucial to understand to what extent this process may influence timely presentation in healthcare’.’

The researchers say the study highlights how our health behaviours can be measured using transactional data and urge healthcare providers to consider the value of such novel data sources in addition to traditional healthcare records.

Dr Hirst added’ ‘This data is very exciting for behavioural scientists to further explore lifestyle changes, dietary behaviours and perhaps exploring other datasets, for example, biosensors, that can provide more information about self-care and health outcome’.’

It is hoped these findings could lead to the development of an alert system for individuals to seek medical attention for symptoms of cancer, or other diseases, sooner than they might otherwise do.