Shortages in cancer doctors across the UK could be leading to delays in patients getting diagnosed, experts have warned.
The Royal College of Radiologists said staff shortages are the “number one concern” among doctors.
Many radiologists and oncologists are “burned out” and the current situation is “unsustainable”, the college warned as it released two new workforce audits.
Its audit into the clinical oncology workforce – specialist cancer doctors who provide non-surgical treatment including radiotherapy and chemotherapy – concluded that there is a 17% shortfall of these medics across the UK.
This shortfall could increase to 26% by 2026, it estimated.
A poll of leaders from all 60 UK cancer centres found that 67% were concerned about workforce shortages affecting the quality of patient care.
Almost nine in 10 (88%) said they are concerned about delayed treatment for patients at their centre.
The report highlights estimates from Macmillan Cancer Support which suggest there were 50,000 “missed” cancer diagnoses during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile the audit into the clinical radiologist workforce found that the workforce is currently short of 1,669 full-time staff – a 29% vacancy rate.
The authors of the audit warned that the vacancy rate among these medics – who use images to diagnose, treat and manage medical conditions and diseases – could rise to 39% by 2026 without action.
Some 97% of clinical radiology directors – of 189 polled from the 163 UK acute trusts – said they are concerned about the backlogs and delays patients are experiencing.
And 81% cited worries about patient safety.
Royal College of Radiologists president Jeanette Dickson said: “Whenever I speak to consultant radiologists and consultant oncologists, the number one issue is workforce.
“The situation we’re in is simply unsustainable and, as these reports show, the impact of doctor shortages is being felt across the country and affecting our ability to diagnose devastating illnesses such as heart disease and stroke, but also our ability to diagnose and treat cancer in a timely manner.
“More training places have been provided recently, but we need a long-term, fully funded, sustained investment that builds in a permanent increase in training numbers, trust funding to employ these trainees, and significant investment in IT and equipment.
“Doctors are burnt out and if we don’t address these workforce issues soon, the picture is going to get a lot worse in future years.”
Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “The NHS cancer workforce has been plagued by a lack of staff since way before the pandemic.
“Staff are working incredibly hard but a shortage of cancer professionals across the board is leaving patients without the level of support they need, which can have a huge impact on someone’s quality of care and even their prognosis.”
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive at Cancer Research UK, said: “These reports further highlight the Government’s persistent failure to offer a long-term solution to the chronic shortages in the cancer workforce.
“UK cancer survival currently lags behind comparable countries, and despite the tireless work of the NHS, there is unacceptable variation across the country in the ability to deliver timely cancer care.
“Sajid Javid’s upcoming 10-year cancer plan is a vital opportunity to deliver the world-leading cancer care that every person affected by cancer deserves.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are record numbers of doctors, nurses and healthcare staff working in the NHS and our 10-Year Cancer Plan will set out how we will lead Europe in cancer care.
“Our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and reduce cancer waiting times includes record investment and rolling out up to 160 community diagnostic centres across the country – with 90 already open.
“We are already seeing good progress with one million additional scans delivered and the number of people on the longest waits halving in the last four months.”