Female, young, or older ethnic minority cancer patients have the highest number of GP consultations before they are referred to a specialist, it has been reported.

Those with less common types of the disease also have to wait longer for referral, a study found.

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of cancer patients who first presented to their family doctor with suspicious symptoms were referred to hospital after only one or two consultations, the research published in The Lancet Oncology journal discovered.

The most pre-referral consultations occurred when the cancer was one of the less common types, or when the patient was either female, young, or an older person from an ethnic minority.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, found that patients with breast, melanoma, testicular and endometrial cancers were more likely to be referred to a specialist after just one or two consultations.

However, patients with some less common cancers such as multiple myeloma, pancreatic, stomach and ovarian cancer, as well as patients with lung and colon cancers and lymphomas, were more likely to require three or more visits to their family doctor before they were referred to a hospital specialist.

Patients with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that is notoriously difficult to diagnose since it mimics many other conditions, are 18 times more likely to require three or more pre-referral consultations compared with patients with breast cancer.

Lead investigator Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, clinical senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, said: “These findings highlight limitations in current scientific knowledge about these cancers.

“Medical research in recent decades has prioritised improving cancer treatments, but knowledge about the ‘symptom signature’ of common cancers and practical solutions on how best to diagnose them is still emerging.

“Hopefully, our study will stimulate investment into research, focusing on patients with cancers and characteristics where the potential to improve the experience of diagnosis of cancer is greatest.”

The researchers also found that the diagnosis of cancer is more challenging among young patients, women, and older ethnic minority patients - all of these three groups are known to have a lower risk of developing cancer compared with older, male and white patients in the United Kingdom.