Radiography Shortages Causing Breast Cancer Problems

Shortages of radiologists and radiographers are causing problems for women with potential breast cancer, according to healthcare experts.

In particular, it is asserted that the breast cancer screening programme in the NHS is on the verge of grinding to a halt.

Particularly troublesome will be the growing numbers of women who will require mammograms in coming years when the age of eligibility is extended from 50-70 to 43-73.

This will also be compounded by demographic trends which point to a greying population in the coming years.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) believe that there is a “looming workforce crisis facing breast cancer screening and diagnostic services in the NHS”.

Already 8% of consultant posts in radiology are unfilled owing to staff shortages.

Dr Hilary Dobson, the chair of the British Society of Breast Radiology, believes that more must be invested in staff training and recruitment if the situation is to improve.

“The skill of breast radiologists in interpreting mammograms and other complex scans is vital to the early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as in the delivery of cancer screening programmes. Without more breast radiologists to tackle this increasing demand we cannot hope to achieve the best possible health outcomes for patients”.

An official report has also found that 15% of posts among radiographers in England who carry out mammograms are currently unpopulated.

Commenting on the issue, Danni Manzi, the head of policy and campaigns at Breast Cancer Care, indicated that British women were being short-changed by the existing situation.

“These findings suggest that in the future these staff shortages could risk more women experiencing a delayed diagnosis. Any delay in diagnosing breast cancer could affect how successful treatment is because the sooner treatment starts, the more effective it’s likely to be. It’s vital any wait is kept to a minimum.”

Yet the RCR claims that the NHS has too few clinical oncologists who deliver both radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Six of the 21 vacant consultant posts in the specialism had been unfilled for at least a year and one in five clinical oncologists were due to retire by 2021, according to RCR data.

Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, is understandably concerned about the problems in this sector.

“These findings are of tremendous concern. This workforce is the backbone of the screening programme and is critical to our ability to diagnose and treat women with breast cancer in England, and must now be urgently reinforced. If we are to ensure the success of the screening programme and that all patients with symptoms of breast cancer have access to the timely investigation they need, this crucial workforce must be properly resourced and sufficiently supported.”

Responding to criticisms, the Department of Health claimed that it is working hard on recruitment in this area.

“We’re helping the NHS manage increased demand in cancer services by making staffing a priority, with 20% more clinical radiologists since 2010. The NHS in England had 20% more clinical radiologists, including 20% more consultants, and almost 10% more doctors in training, than in May 2010,” a spokesman commented.

About 2.1 million women requires breast cancer screening in England on an annual basis.

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