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INTRODUCTION: People being investigated for cancer face a wealth of complex information. Non-specific symptom pathways (NSS) were implemented in the United Kingdom in 2017 to address the needs of patients experiencing symptoms such as weight loss, fatigue or general practitioner 'gut feeling', who did not have streamlined pathways for cancer investigation. This study aimed to explore the health literacy skills needed by patients being investigated for cancer in NSS pathways. METHODS: This study employed ethnographic methods across four hospitals in England, including interviews, patient shadowing and clinical care observations, to examine NSS pathways for cancer diagnosis. We recruited 27 patients who were shadowed and interviewed during their care. We also interviewed 27 professionals. The analysis focused on patient communication and understanding, drawing on the concepts of personal and organisational health literacy. RESULTS: Our analysis derived six themes highlighting the considerable informational demands of the NSS pathway. Patients were required to understand complex blood tests and investigations in primary care and often did not understand why they were referred. The NSS pathway itself was difficult to understand with only a minority of patients appreciating that multiple organs were being investigated for cancer. The process of progressing through the pathway was also difficult to understand, particularly around who was making decisions and what would happen next. The results of investigations were complex, often including incidental findings. Patients whose persistent symptoms were not explained were often unsure of what to do following discharge. CONCLUSION: We have identified several potential missed opportunities for organisations to support patient understanding of NSS pathways which could lead to inappropriate help-seeking post-discharge. Patients' difficulties in comprehending previous investigations and findings could result in delays, overtesting or inadequately targeted investigations, hindering the effective use of their medical history. Third, patients' limited understanding of their investigations and results may impede their ability to engage in patient safety by reporting potential care errors. PATIENT OR PUBLIC CONTRIBUTION: Patient, public, clinical and policy representatives contributed to developing the research objectives through a series of meetings and individual conversations in preparation for the study. We have held several events in which patients and the public have had an opportunity to give feedback about our results, such as local interest groups in North London and academic conferences. A clinical contributor (J.-A. M.) was involved in data analysis and writing the manuscript.

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cancer, early diagnosis, health literacy, patient communication, qualitative, Humans, Neoplasms, Anthropology, Cultural, Health Literacy, Female, Male, Middle Aged, England, Aged, Adult, Interviews as Topic, Communication, Qualitative Research