Patients face long NHS waits for scans ‘due to radiology shortfall’

Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor
·4-min read

Patients face long waits for scans and X-rays due to a 33% shortfall in the NHS radiology workforce, a royal college is warning.

The NHS needs at least another 1,939 consultants across the UK to meet safe staffing levels and the demand for scans seen even before the pandemic, according to a new report from the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR).

The RCR warns that some doctors who stayed on during the pandemic are now set to leave, while its poll of radiology leaders at 164 UK trusts found 58% feel they do not have enough diagnostic and interventional radiologists to keep patients safe.

The charity Breast Cancer Now backed the report, saying there are currently 41 vacant breast radiologist positions across the UK and warning that women risk not getting an early diagnosis of cancer.

The RCR said that, unless more consultants are trained and there is better staff retention and recruitment, by 2025 the UK’s radiologist shortfall will hit 44% (3,613 consultants).

Official figures from the NHS for February show 327,663 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test such as an MRI scan or ultrasound.

Professor Mark Callaway, radiology workforce lead at the RCR, said: “Our new report has found the NHS needs thousands more radiologists to ensure patients get the safe and effective treatment they deserve, amplified by the first-hand experience of frontline doctors who witness the impact of consultant shortages on patient care on a daily basis.

“The staffing forecast for 2025 makes grim reading but, even more worryingly, swathes of demoralised radiologists are imminently looking to work less or leave the NHS.”

The college said radiologists are working hard to clear the backlog of work caused by the pandemic, but are having to scan at a slower rate due to the need for enhanced infection control and social distancing.

Half of trusts and health boards (47%) in the UK reported not having the staff or transfer arrangements needed to run safe 24/7 interventional radiology services, meaning patients are potentially missing out on life-saving procedures.

Radiology leaders told the college they cannot deliver adequate services for patients and can no longer provide cancer and acute care safely.

The RCR said the UK has reached a “tipping point” when it comes to radiology staffing, with shortages posing a serious threat to NHS recovery.

As a result, it said patients are facing “long, anxious and inevitable” waits for diagnosis and surgery.

The RCR’s report noted that the UK has 4,277 radiology consultants, equating to 3,902 doctors working full-time, an increase of 170 full-time consultants compared with 2019.

But while consultant numbers are increasing, it is not fast enough to keep up with patient demand, and the shortfall in staffing ranges from 24% to 38% across the UK, it said.

Furthermore, a poll of 1,089 UK radiology consultants at the start of April found 41% were “moderately or severely” demoralised in their jobs post-pandemic and 48% are planning to work less after the past year.

A fifth (22%) are now considering leaving the NHS and 12% are considering leaving in the next 12 months.

Prof Callaway said: “The coronavirus pandemic has bluntly contrasted the everyday heroism of NHS teams with the chronic underfunding of services, and the cracks in radiology, as elsewhere, are becoming undeniable.

“Unless hospital imaging capacity is massively improved, the UK will continue to lag behind other countries on cancer survival rates and patients will face worse outcomes for trauma care and all kinds of conditions.

“The need for investment is urgent.”

Breast Cancer Now said a quarter of breast radiologists (24%) are due to retire in the next five years.

Its chief executive, Baroness Delyth Morgan, said: “Today’s census paints a bleak picture of vast shortages in breast radiologists across the UK at a time when a fully resourced imaging and diagnostic workforce is needed more than ever.

“The already over-stretched NHS is facing unparalleled pressures due to the pandemic, and a frightening consequence is that some women with breast cancer may not receive an early diagnosis which is critical to their chances of survival.”

Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Years of underfunding and cutbacks meant we entered the crisis with waiting lists growing and targets for cancer treatment missed and these have only continued to grow during the pandemic.

“It is now crucial that there is an NHS rescue plan that includes a proper plan to recruit and train the NHS staff we need to bring down waiting lists and leave services fully staffed for the future.

“Leaving patients in limbo waiting for tests and treatment risks their condition worsening leading to permanent disability, loss of livelihood and tragically for some loss of life.

“Ministers must put patients first and do all they can to bring down these spiralling waiting lists.”