2.3 Initial referral

2.3 Initial referral

Any patient with symptoms suspicious of CLL can be referred for specialist assessment as first line. If the diagnosis of CLL is confirmed or the results are inconsistent or indeterminate, referral to a haematologist for ongoing management is warranted.

Patients should be enabled to make informed decisions about their choice of specialist and health service. General practitioners should make referrals in consultation with the patient after considering the clinical care needed, cost implications (see referral choices and informed financial consent on page 9), waiting periods, location and facilities, including discussing the patient’s preference for health care through the public or the private system.

Referral for suspected or diagnosed CLL should include the following essential information to accurately triage and categorise the level of clinical urgency:

  • important psychosocial history and relevant medical history
  • family history, current symptoms, medications and allergies
  • results of current clinical investigations (imaging and pathology reports)
  • results of all prior relevant investigations
  • notification if an interpreter service is

The following clinical prioritisation criteria are used to triage patients with CLL.

According to the CLL International Working Group guidelines, updated in 2018, CLL is diagnosed when there are more than 5.0 × 109/L B lymphocytes in the peripheral blood for at least three months and clonality is confirmed by demonstrating immunoglobulin light-chain restriction on flow cytometry (Hallek et al. 2018). Lower levels of clonal B-cell lymphocytosis may suggest the related disorder known as monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis and should also be referred to a specialist.

Referral to a specialist should take place once significant lymphocytosis and/or a leukaemic cell population is identified.

In most cases, CLL is diagnosed incidentally based on minor peripheral blood lymphocytosis in patients who are either well or have minimal symptoms. In these typical cases, urgent referral and work-up are not required to prevent physical deterioration. However, the differential diagnosis of CLL can be very stressful for patients, so a timely referral to enable clarity and reassurance is an important consideration.

It is also important to assess for uncommon but more medically urgent cases.

Cases that require prompt referral to a specialist within 72 hours are:

  • severe/(symptomatic) thrombocytopenia or anaemia such as haemoglobin under 70 g/L or platelets under 50 × 109/L, or
  • bulky (> 5 cm) or locally compressive

The specialist should then assess the patient within 72 hours, or sooner if medically urgent based on specific circumstances.

In more typical cases where referral is less urgent, it will be important for the general practitioner to provide reassurance and clearly explain the slow-growing nature of CLL, noting that typically intervention is not needed for several years, and up to one-third of patients may never require treatment (Scarfò et al. 2016). This is in contrast to acute forms of leukaemia.

Many services will reject incomplete referrals, so it is important that referrals comply with all relevant health service criteria.

If access is via online referral, a lack of a hard copy should not delay referral.

The specialist should provide timely communication to the general practitioner about the consultation and should notify the general practitioner if the patient does not attend appointments.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients will need a culturally appropriate referral. To view the optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the corresponding quick reference guide, visit the Cancer Australia website. Download the consumer resources – Checking for cancer and Cancer from the Cancer Australia website.

In most cases, referral within two weeks is appropriate. However, if severe thrombocytopenia, anaemia or bulky or locally compressive lymphadenopathy is present, refer within 72 hours.