Could Purchases on a Loyalty Card Lead to an Earlier Cancer Diagnosis? Study Finds They Might

Loyalty cards come with a few benefits: discounts, coupons, and maybe some points. A new study out of the U.K. finds the purchases made on them could also help diagnose a serious disease early.

Researchers from Imperial College London recently used loyalty card data to determine if medicinal purchases could serve as an indicator of ovarian cancer. The findings, published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, show that pain and indigestion purchases were more common among women who would later be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Some symptoms of the disease include stomach pain and bloating.


Dr. James Flanagan, lead author from Imperial’s Department of Surgery & Cancer, says, “The cancer symptoms we are looking for are very common, but for some women, they could be the first signs of something more serious.

“Using shopping data, our study found a noticeable increase in purchases of pain and indigestion medications among women with ovarian cancer up to 8 months before diagnosis, compared with women without ovarian cancer. This suggests that long before women have recognised their symptoms as alarming enough to go to the GP, they may be treating them at home.”

He adds that early diagnosis is important, so if these purchases could lead to the cancer being picked up earlier, patients’ treatment options could improve. In the paper, the team notes that the five-year survival rate for those diagnosed at the earliest stage is 93%, while it’s 20% for those diagnosed in the latest stage.


To gauge loyalty cards’ effectiveness at aiding with early diagnosis, the researchers looked at six years’ worth of loyalty card data from 273 shoppers at two U.K. retailers. Overall, 153 of these women had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, while 120 had not.

Participants also filled out a questionnaire on their ovarian cancer risk factors, any symptoms they experienced, and any information on visits to their primary care provider in the year leading up to their cancer referral or diagnosis.

From this, the team learned that, on average, those with ovarian cancer began to recognize their symptoms about four-and-a-half months before they were diagnosed. Meanwhile, if they visited with their primary care provider to inquire about the symptoms, it took an average of three-and-half months before they were diagnosed, following their first appointment.

The team says that further research is needed to confirm their findings, but their work suggests loyalty card data may be a new way to improve patient outcomes with an earlier diagnosis.


Dr. David Crosby, Head of Prevention and Early Detection Research at Cancer Research UK, which helped fund the study, says, “Today, in the digital age, we live with a wealth of data at our fingertips. Studies like this are a great example of how we can harness this information for good and help us detect cancer earlier.

“It’s incredible to think that this innovative study using loyalty cards, something most of us carry in our wallets, could help women with ovarian cancer which is often diagnosed late and mimics the symptoms of other, more benign conditions.”

Apart from bloating and stomach pain, other symptoms of ovarian cancer include trouble eating or feeling full quickly and always feeling like you need to urinate. The American Cancer Society notes that if you experience these symptoms more than 12 times per month, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

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