Cancer patients are missing out on potentially life-saving radiotherapy treatments amid fears there are not enough specialist staff to operate them, according to experts.

Professor Anthony Chalmers of the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre will say in a speech today that state-of-the-art radiotherapy machines, which are already installed in Scotland’s cancer centres, are not being used to their full potential.

He will tell a conference in Edinburgh: "It is partly a geographical problem. It is proving difficult to recruit consultant clinical oncologists to some of the Scottish centres. To implement the new radiotherapy techniques you really need to have a full complement of clinical oncology consultant staff. They have to lead that process.

Speaking at the Scottish Cancer Conference, he is expected to add: "The other professional group that is pivotal is the radiotherapy physicists. Particularly in Scotland there is a shortage of highly qualified radiotherapy physics staff. The smaller centres are struggling the most."

His comments were echoed by Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s senior public affairs manager, who said although Scotland has a world-class infrastructure for delivering advanced radiotherapy, this will mean nothing to patients until all these machines are being used to their potential.

“We understand solutions to this problem are complex and would likely involve, among other things, increased recruitment of specialists from a range of backgrounds. However, while there is no quick fix, the stark reality is that patients are missing out on potentially curative treatments, so this issue must now be nothing less than a top priority for the Scottish Government,” he said.

A lack of specialist clinical oncologists means some machines are not being used to their full potential and patients in some areas are more likely to receive the treatments than other parts of Scotland. As well as normal treatments, the machines, known as linear accelerators – called “linacs” – can deliver advanced forms of radiotherapy which can target cancers more accurately with fewer side-effects.

Prof Chalmers, a Cancer Research UK funded specialist in radiotherapy treatment, will say in his speech: “In some cases this enables us to give higher radiotherapy doses to the cancer. The new techniques can also significantly reduce the number of treatment sessions required, improving patients’ experiences and outcomes.

“All cancer centres in Scotland should be delivering advanced radiotherapy to all the patients who would benefit. Four times as many eligible patients will receive these new treatments in some regions of Scotland compared to others.”

Four in 10 cancer cures involve radiotherapy treatment.

Prof Chalmers, chairman of Clinical Oncology at the University of Glasgow, will highlight the range of benefits of advanced radiotherapy.

He will also outline how, in some cases, advanced radiotherapy can offer curative treatments in as few as three to five sessions, compared to six to eight weeks of daily treatments for many patients receiving standard radiotherapy.

“In clinical trials and in day-to-day treatment of cancer patients we are seeing growing evidence of the significant benefits of advanced radiotherapy, in terms of increasing cancer cure rates as well as minimising side effects,” said Prof Chalmers.

“It’s vital that patients across Scotland can benefit from these treatments.”

Scottish Labour's Equalities spokeswoman Jenny Marra said: “This should not be a postcode lottery of treatment - especially when the equipment exists in every cancer centres.

“Health boards and the Scottish Government need to look urgently at why this equipment is not being used to its full potential in all centres."

The country's cancer centres at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness; Aberdeen Royal Infirmary; Ninewells Hospital, Dundee; Western General Hospital, Edinburgh and Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in Glasgow are all fully equipped with state of the art linear accelerators, and supported by a national programme to replace them at the end of their lifespan. A satellite radiotherapy facility for the Glasgow centre will open at Monklands General Hospital at the end of this month.

The Scottish Cancer Conference is run by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) on behalf of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cancer.

The Scottish Government’s health secretary Shona Robison said cancer treatment is a priority as a new plan is developed for services in the future.

“We’ve invested over the years to have state-of-the-art radiotherapy equipment in all of our five cancer centres as well as the new satellite centre soon to be up and running in Lanarkshire,” she said.

“These are complex treatments which need specialists from a range of backgrounds. Through our new Cancer Plan we will be able to establish the next steps to make the maximum use of these facilities.”