Radiologist shortage 'could cause serious delays to treatment'
Hundreds of thousands of NHS patients are enduring serious delays to diagnosis and treatment due to a shortage of radiologists, experts are warning.
The health service was forced to spend around £88 million last year employing out-of-hours staff to cope with a growing backlog of X-rays and scans as the situation becomes "increasingly desperate", the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) said.
This is more than double the amount spent just three years ago and could pay for at least 1,028 full-time consultants, according to RCR figures.
Last year, just 3% of NHS imaging departments were able to report all their patient scans within normal working hours.
Instead, they had to turn to private contractors or pay NHS consultants out of hours to manage demand.
New data from the RCR's workforce census show that 8.5% of radiologist posts in the UK stood vacant during 2016, of which 61% were unfilled for a year or more.
Meanwhile, the number of new consultants coming into the NHS is failing to balance the number retiring, suggesting the UK's radiologist workforce will expand by just 1% year-on-year.
This is despite the demand for X-rays and scans growing year-on-year, with CT and MRI scans up 30% in England between 2013 and 2016.
The report also said the UK has the third lowest number of radiologists per population of 31 EU countries, with 7.5 clinicians (radiology trainees and consultants combined) per 100,000 patients.
The EU average is 12.7 per 100,000.
Dr Nicola Strickland, president of the RCR, said: "Our recent snapshot surveys of radiology departments show four out of five UK hospital trusts have scans that go unreported for a month or more, and that from 2016 to 2017 the number of studies waiting for over a month rose by nearly 20%.
"That's hundreds of thousands of patients anxiously waiting weeks for a diagnosis or update, and could mean serious diseases and cancer going undetected in that time."
She said so much of modern medicine depends on imaging, adding: "The Government seems intent on sticking its proverbial head in the sand, constantly failing to invest in the much-needed trainee radiologists who will become the consultants of tomorrow.
"Instead, it is content to waste millions of pounds of NHS funds paying for scans and X-rays to be reported out-of-hours, as well as paying for expensive locum consultants just to keep hospital imaging departments.
"As well as doctors having more scans to report, improving imaging technology means these scans are becoming ever more complicated, taking longer to interpret.
"Cutting-edge radiology, such as life-altering stroke intervention and cardiac imaging, can only keep pace if we have enough radiologist doctors to do it.
"Without more radiologists, more patients will miss out on vital new interventional procedures, and they will wait even longer for diagnoses of cancer and serious diseases."
Heather Blake, director of support and influencing at Prostate Cancer UK, said the findings were "deeply concerning".
She said that earlier this year, a clinical trial showed that giving men a new form of MRI scan before a biopsy could dramatically improve the accuracy of their diagnosis.
"This is the biggest leap forward in this area for decades. Yet patients will struggle to gain the benefits of this ground-breaking technique if there isn't the necessary highly skilled radiologist workforce available.
"The Government needs to urgently address the shortfall in radiologists with a long-term solution.
"Workforce planning must adapt to ensure patients can benefit from breakthroughs which will ultimately save lives."