Is the early identification and referral of suspected head and neck cancers by community pharmacists feasible? A qualitative interview study exploring the views of patients in North East England

Susan M. Bissett*, Andrew Sturrock, Marco Carrozzo, Rachel Lish, Debora Howe, Susan Mountain, Michael Nugent, James O'Hara, Adam Todd, Scott Wilkes, Philip M. Preshaw

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Downloads (Pure)


Introduction: Head and neck cancer (HNC) is the eighth most common cancer in the United Kingdom. Survival rates improve when the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, highlighting a key need to identify at‐risk patients. This study aimed to explore opportunistic HNC identification and referral by community pharmacists (CPs) using a symptom‐based risk assessment calculator, from the perspective of patients with a diagnosis of HNC. Methods: Purposive sampling was used to recruit patients from the HNC pathway in three large teaching hospitals in Northern England. Qualitative methodology was used to collect data through an iterative series of semistructured telephone interviews. Framework analysis was utilised to identify key themes. Results: Four main themes were constructed through the analytic process: (1) HNC presentation and seeking help; (2) the role of the CP; (3) public perception of HNC and (4) the role of a symptom‐based risk calculator. Participants agreed that CPs could play a role in the identification and referral of suspected HNCs, but there were concerns about access as patients frequently only encounter the medicine counter assistant when they visit the pharmacy. HNC symptoms are frequently attributed to common or minor conditions initially and therefore considered not urgent, leading to delays in seeking help. While there is public promotion for some cancers, there is little known about HNC. Early presentation of HNC can be quite variable, therefore raising awareness would help. The use of a symptom‐based risk calculator was considered beneficial if it enabled earlier referral and diagnosis. Participants suggested that it would also be useful if the public were made aware of it and could self‐assess their symptoms. Conclusion: In principle, CPs could play a role in the identification and referral of HNC, but there was uncertainty as to how the intervention would work. Future research is needed to develop an intervention that would facilitate earlier identification and referral of HNC while not disrupting CP work and that would promote HNC and the risk calculator more widely. Patient or Public Contribution: Patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) was integrated throughout the project. Initially, the proposal was discussed during a Cancer Head and Neck Group Experience (CHANGE) PPIE meeting. CHANGE was set up to support HNC research in 2018. The group is composed of seven members (four female, three male) with an age range of 50–71 years, who were diagnosed at Sunderland Royal Hospital. A patient representative from the University of Sunderland PPIE group and a trustee of the Northern HNC Charity were recruited as co‐applicants. They attended project management group meetings and reviewed patient‐facing documentation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2089-2097
Number of pages9
JournalHealth Expectations
Issue number5
Early online date17 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023

Cite this