Open Access Open Badges Research article

Investigating the role of the general practitioner in cancer prevention: a mixed methods study

Sonja McIlfatrick1*, Sinead Keeney2, Hugh McKenna3, Nigel McCarley4 and Gerry McElwee5

Author Affiliations

1 Reader, Institute of Nursing and Health Research, University of Ulster, Shore Road, Newtownabbey, N. Ireland, BT37 OQB, UK

2 Senior Lecturer, Institute of Nursing Research and Health, University of Ulster, Ulster, N. IrelandUK

3 Prof Hugh McKenna, Pro Vice Chancellor Research & Innovation, University of Ulster, Ulster, N. Ireland, UK

4 Dr Nigel McCarley, Research Associate, Institute of Nursing and Health Research, University of Ulster, Ulster, N. Ireland, UK

5 McIlwee, G Head of Cancer Prevention, Cancer Focus NI, Ulster, N. Ireland, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Family Practice 2013, 14:58  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-14-58

Published: 7 May 2013



Despite evidence of the effectiveness of cancer preventive services and the increasing development of guidelines, actual rates of delivery of cancer prevention activities remain low. Due to their frequent front-line contact with the public, family physicians (GPs) have the potential to play an important role in the primary prevention of cancer. However, there is a lack of information about their actual role in cancer prevention. The aim of this study was to investigate the actual and potential roles of general practitioners (GP) in the prevention of cancer.


A sequential exploratory mixed methods approach was used. The sample included all the General Practice (GP) practices in a region in the UK (n=345). Postal questionnaires were administered to GPs (n=1249); following 290 returns (response rate 23%), semi-structured interviews were undertaken with GPs (n=14).


The majority of the GP respondents (66.4%, n=184) considered that they routinely provided cancer prevention information. This was specifically focusing on smoking cessation as almost all GPs (96.8%, n=270) enquired about a patient’s smoking status. Overall, 47.2% (n=128) of GP respondents indicated that they felt they did not have time to perform a cancer prevention role; however, 88.3% (n=242) still felt that they had the ‘opportunity’ to do so. Over half the sample (61.3%, n=168) indicated that imposed health priorities and targets militated against providing cancer prevention activities. Almost all the GP respondents (98.9%, n=273) agreed with empowering individuals to take responsibility for their health issues. The GPs identified the need for alternative models for cancer prevention beyond current face to face patient care, including other health and non-health professionals. Whilst lack of time was identified as a critical factor, the GPs indicated that significant efforts were made to encourage patients to take personal responsibility for lifestyle choices.


The GPs indicated a need for training around behavioural change and theories of motivation and action. This has implications for primary care and family physicians worldwide. While doctor–patient consultations and the physicians’ credibility offer great potential for cancer prevention, time pressures and imposed government targets often mean that their actual cancer prevention role is reduced.

Cancer; Prevention; General practitioners; Primary health care; Health promotion; Mixed methods