PATIENTS in Scotland are experiencing delays of a month or more to diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer due to a shortage of qualified radiologists, with the chair of the profession warning that NHS radiology services in Scotland are now "on the brink of collapse".

Dr Grant Baxter warned that, without urgent action to fill vacancies and boost trainee numbers, medical diagnoses and operations would grind to a halt in some hospitals within three years because there would no longer be enough radiologists to perform the vital scans that surgeons rely on in theatre or that oncologists use to guide treatment in cancer patients.

Dr Baxter, a Glasgow-based consultant radiologist and chairman of the College’s Standing Scottish Committee said: “Having been a doctor for 34 years I have never seen it as bad as this. Scottish radiology is on the brink of collapse, and if that happens there will be no medical diagnoses or surgical operations at all, since none can occur without radiologists interpreting the scans and X-rays.

Loading article content

"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”.

Radiology is the fastest-growing speciality in medicine. Demand for radiology services increased by around 55 per cent between 2010 and 2015, partly due to new types of scanning technology as well as an increased incidence of cancer as the population ages, but also due to cancer patients undergoing more frequent scanning. 

However, this surge has coincided with an increase in the headcount for consultant radiologists of just four per cent in Scotland, compared to 16 per cent across the UK as a whole, and came against the backdrop of severe cuts in trainee radiologist numbers during the previous SNP Government.The profession is also projected to lose 60 consultant radiologists to retirement within three years, nearly 20 per cent of the workforce.

Dr Baxter urged the Scottish Government to urgently recruit radiologists from overseas in the short-term and fund extra NHS trainee posts this year. He said: "Many specialities have difficulty attracting doctors into them - we're not one of them. For every trainee we appoint, we have to turn down four - year after year after year. So it's an open door. We have all these fantastic doctors that we can bring in and train to address this problem, but we need the Government and the health boards to put the money forward and make this happen."

The Scottish Government said the number of consultant clinical radiologists in NHS Scotland had increased by 46 per cent since September 2006, from 223.5 "whole-time equivalent" to 326.3 WTE in September 2016. However, Dr Baxter this masked the extent that full-time consultants had been replaced by part-time staff.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said:

“Last year, we published our five-year £100 million cancer strategy which sets out how we will improve patients’ access to cancer diagnosis and treatment. This included a £50 million commitment to investing in new radiotherapy equipment, as well as training and recruiting a broad range of specialists with an interest in radiotherapy including: imaging, delivering radiotherapy, delivering nuclear medicine, oncology and specialist nurses.

“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. We are also currently developing a new National Health and Social Care Workforce Plan – the first of its kind for Scotland – which will identify future workforce needs and training requirements to prepare our NHS for the future.”