Scottish radiology services struggling to cope with high demand, doctors warn

Cancer Research UK

A shortage of radiologists in Scotland is putting patient safety at risk, doctors have warned.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) said Scottish radiology services are "on the brink of collapse" due to a combination of long-term job vacancies, low trainee numbers and increasing numbers of patients.

“As the demand for imaging services continues to increase, it’s vital there is a sufficient radiology and radiographer workforce" – Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK

Clinical radiologists are doctors who interpret x-rays, scans and other types of medical images to diagnose diseases, including cancer, and injuries.

The RCR said that some cancer patients are waiting more than a month for diagnosis and treatment as a result of stretched radiology services.

In 2015 nearly 1 in 10 radiology posts was unfilled, and 9 in 10 hospitals said they were unable to handle with the daily workload of producing reports for images, according to the RCR.

Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s senior policy and public affairs manager in Scotland, said that prompt radiology services were a crucial part of diagnosing cancer early, where treatment is more likely to be successful. 

“Imaging plays a crucial role in cancer diagnosis, but the pressures on diagnostic services across the NHS is becoming more intense,” he said. “As the demand for imaging services continues to increase, it’s vital there is a sufficient radiology and radiographer workforce – both now and in the future.”

Dr Grant Baxter, consultant radiologist and chairman of the RCR's standing Scottish committee, said: "A perfect storm of increased demand, no significant increase in consultant numbers or trainees, chronically unfilled posts and a tsunami of expected retirements in the next three years means that we need a sustainable solution now for the sake of our patients."

The RCR is calling on the Scottish government to support recruitment from overseas to fill vacant consultant radiologist posts, increase radiology trainee numbers and improve technology so that scans can be viewed and interpreted outside of hospitals.

The push to recruit more staff from overseas as well as boosting trainee numbers was welcomed by Sara Bainbridge, policy manager at Cancer Research UK.

But she added that more could be done to improve and support radiology services, for instance through networking and allowing specially trained radiographers to interpret some results.

Scottish health secretary, Shona Robison, said: "Prompt cancer treatment is vital. Last year, we published our 5 year cancer strategy which sets out how we will improve patients' access to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"We're committed to working closely with the NHS, including staff representatives like the Royal College of Radiologists, to ensure this investment sees the expected increase in the number of specialist radiotherapists working in our health service."