Significant shortfalls in specialty doctors costing lives

·4-min read
The research found an estimated 1,939 full-time consultant clinical radiologist posts were unfilled (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)
The research found an estimated 1,939 full-time consultant clinical radiologist posts were unfilled (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)

Shortfalls in specialty doctors are “costing lives and costing the NHS money”, according to a new report.

Tackling the shortage of imaging and cancer doctors was “necessary to ensuring that patient outcomes do not continue to suffer”.

The report, from the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) and WPI Economics, stated that across the UK there were an estimated 1,939 full-time consultant clinical radiologist posts unfilled, representing a 33 per cent shortfall.

And there was a 19 per cent shortfall of clinical oncology consultant posts unfilled, the equivalent of around 189 full-time doctors.

The report warned that without action there would be shortages of 6,000 consultant clinical radiologists and 700 consultant clinical oncologists by 2030.

“There is a significant shortfall in the numbers of clinical radiologists and clinical oncologists in the UK,” the authors wrote.

“These shortfalls are costing lives and costing the NHS money, through the need to outsource work and recruit from overseas as well as facing increased treatment costs for patients diagnosed late, which would be better spent elsewhere, improving patient outcomes.

“Tackling this shortage is necessary to ensuring that patient outcomes do not continue to suffer.

“Doing it in a sustainable way will mean that we do not continue to place excessive pressure on an already overstretched workforce, meaning that productivity, retention and experience will also rise.”

The report estimated that the NHS would “waste” £400 million over the next nine years unless the Government invested in imaging and cancer doctors because it would be forced to spend money on outsourcing and overseas recruitment.

The authors estimated that investment in the two medical specialties would cost £652 million by 2030 and provide nearly all the clinical oncologists the NHS would need and around half the forecast shortfall of radiologists.

RCR president Dr Jeanette Dickson said: “The cancer backlog is well documented and it is clear we currently do not have enough imaging and cancer doctors to provide safe patient care.

“Right now, the NHS is short of nearly 2,000 radiologists and 200 clinical oncologists and projections from today’s report show those shortages could hit 6,000 and 700 by 2030.

“There are great innovations in the pipeline for imaging and cancer care, including developmental AI (artificial intelligence) and community diagnostic centres, but the bottom line is that AI and new models for delivering care will not work without more consultants on the ground.

“Radiology and oncology are central to diagnosing and treating cancer, stroke, heart disease and many other devastating diseases, and without a properly staffed workforce we simply cannot ensure good and safe patient care.”

The report comes as the NHS faces the biggest ever backlog of care in its history.

Around 5.6 million people are waiting for hospital treatment in England alone.

Meanwhile, a damning report published in September concluded that it could take more than a decade to clear the cancer backlog in England.

Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank and the CF health consultancy showed that during the height of the pandemic 369,000 fewer people than expected were referred to a specialist with suspected cancer.

And Cancer Research UK warned that cancer survival rates “could go backwards”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Internationally trained staff continue to play a vital role in our NHS and we are working hard to increase our homegrown supply of health and social care staff.

“The latest stats showed there are 11% more doctors working in clinical oncology compared to the same period in 2019, and over 9% more radiology doctors.

“We have provided record investment to tackle the backlog, with £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years to deliver an extra nine million checks, scans and operations for patients across the country.

“The NHS is also deploying more efficient, innovative ways to deliver more appointments and treatments which includes dedicated surgical hubs and 40 new community diagnostic centres.”

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