Populus research has found that fear of what a doctor might find is a barrier to one in four people, preventing them from seeking help for a potential symptom of cancer.

This troubling finding comes as part of research undertaken on behalf of the specialist health policy and communication agency Incisive Health as part of their report on the State of Cancer. This comprehensive study encompasses the British public’s relationship with cancer, attitudes towards prevention and treatment, and views on the NHS’ performance in dealing with cancer. Separately, Populus also produces research on the public’s overall perceptions of the NHS, as part of a tracker marking the 70th anniversary of the service being founded.

Barriers to seeking treatment

Populus found that the two biggest barriers to seeking treatment for potential cancer symptoms are fear of what a doctor might find, and worries about wasting the doctor’s time (which affects one in four women, and one in five men).

Responses to the statement “If you were concerned about a symptom that might be cancer, what might stop you personally seeking help immediately?” by gender


Commenting on this finding, Professor Sir Mike Richards, the government’s ‘cancer tsar’ between 1999 and 2013, and senior counsel at Incisive Health said: “In the UK we still seem to be uniquely bothered about ‘wasting’ our GP’s time. We need the public to know that it is never a nuisance or a waste of time to ask our GP about what could be a symptom of cancer”. With previous research by Incisive Health showing a clear link between early diagnosis and positive outcomes (as well as lower costs to the NHS), this finding gives clear evidence as to what needs to be overcome in order to achieve early diagnosis across the board.


Cancer remains the illness most feared by the public

Almost one in three (31%) of respondents identify cancer as the illness they most fear, slightly ahead of Alzheimers / dementia. This translates to 60% of the public choosing cancer as one of their top two spending priorities (in terms of illnesses) for the NHS if it had a notional extra £100m per year. Not only is this the highest overall figure, cancer is also the top priority for all age groups, except for 65-70 year olds and 75+ year olds, for whom Alzheimers / dementia comes out slightly ahead.


50% do not believe the NHS has the money it needs to provide world-leading care

Populus finds that when it comes to public views on the NHS and cancer, opinions are sharply divided, with one in four (27%) agreeing with the statement that the NHS offers the best cancer care in the world, but slightly more (29%) disagreeing with this statement. However, the public is less divided on the question of funding, with 50% of respondents disagreeing with the statement “I am confident that NHS cancer services have the money they need to offer the best cancer care in the world”.

Responses to the statement “I am confident that NHS cancer services have the money they need to offer the best cancer care in the world”

Read the full report here


Populus interviewed 1,724 adults in England online between 15 and 17 June 2018. Data is weighted to be representative of all adults in England aged 18+. It should be noted that this was the weekend on which the Prime Minister committed additional funding to the NHS. It is unclear whether this will have influenced public responses. Populus is a member of the British polling council and abides by its rules. Full data tables and questions asked are available here.

Celia Roberts

Celia joined Populus in 2014 as a Research Executive and has since been promoted to Senior Consultant. Since joining Populus, she has managed a number of different research projects for some of Populus’s biggest accounts including BT, Sainsbury’s and the Premier League. As part of her work for the Premier League, she has co-ordinated both domestic and international research among fans, most recently organising a six-market series of focus groups in Southeast Asia.  Celia graduated from the University of Exeter and holds a degree in English and Spanish. As part of her degree she spent a year abroad living and working in Madrid. In 2016, Celia completed the Market Research Society Advanced Certificate, for which she received a distinction.