Community pharmacies in England will be asked to spot early signs of cancer and be able to refer patients directly for scans as part of an NHS pilot.

Announcing the pilot the NHS ConfedExpo conference in Liverpool today, NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said it will fund pharmacists to spot and have more conversations with people who have signs of cancer but might not have noticed symptoms.

Those with symptoms including a cough lasting for three weeks or more, difficulty swallowing or blood in their urine will be referred for scans and checks without needing to see a GP if staff think it could be cancer.

In addition, the NHS said it will deploy roaming ‘liver scan trucks’ from June 2022 that visit GP practices, town centres and foodbanks to encourage the uptake of quick, non-invasive scans.

It will also launch a programme of genetic testing for BRCA mutations – genes that can raise the risk of breast and prostate cancer - for people with Jewish heritage who are at higher risk of mutations, with up to one in 40 people affected, compared with one in 400 among the general population.

This is expected to identify thousands more BRCA carriers over the next three years so they can seek early access to further surveillance and prevention programmes.

The Pharmacist has asked NHS England which areas of the country will trial the service.

Ms Pritchard said the pilot was ‘another way in which the role of community pharmacy is being recognised as a vital part of NHS primary and community care’.

She added: ‘These plans have the power to transform the way we find and treat cancer and ultimately, spare thousands of patients and families from avoidable pain and loss. And wider than that, they can be a great example of how the NHS should make every contact with the public count.’

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said that ensuring patients can access diagnosis and treatment in their communities and on high streets was ‘a fundamental part’ of the Government’ 10-Year Cancer Plan for England, expected this summer.

Helga Mangion, policy manager at the National Pharmacy Association, said: ‘Earlier diagnosis of cancer gives a better chance of successful treatment. As a highly accessible healthcare setting, pharmacies can play an important role in spotting signs of cancer and make appropriate referrals into NHS care.

‘The community pharmacy cancer diagnosis pilot is a great opportunity to further expand the clinical role of pharmacy teams, increase early detection rates and improve outcomes for patients. This initiative builds on the skills of a highly trained workforce and the fact that pharmacy staff know their patients well and see them regularly.’

Community pharmacy can – and should – contribute to tackling the backlog in cancer diagnosis and treatment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, The Pharmacist has previously reported.

Experts have warned that the Covid-induced cancer backlog could lead to tens of thousands of extra deaths, with referrals of suspected cancer falling by 350,000 in March to August 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, and some 40,000 fewer people than normal starting cancer treatment.