A SURGE in demand for scans crucial to diagnosing cancer is piling pressure on radiologists as Scotland grapples with one of the highest vacancy rates in the UK.

The Royal College of Radiologists warned of a looming “tsunami of retirements” with at least a fifth of the workforce in Scotland is set to step down in the next five years, and an urgent need for more trainees.

The latest workforce census shows that one in 10 radiology posts in Scotland is empty, compared to a UK average of 8.5 per cent. However, the report stresses that subsequent data collection by ISD Scotland pointed to a vacancy rate of 13 per cent, “highlighting the scale of the challenge facing the radiology workforce in Scotland in maintaining the delivery of safe and effective patient care”.

The number of MRI scans carried out in Scottish hospitals rocketed 67 per cent between 2010 and 2016, while CT scans were up 62 per cent over the period. X-rays were up 16 per cent. However, the number of full-time radiologists has grown by only seven per cent.

The increased demand partly driven by new types of scanning technology as well as an increased incidence of cancer as the population ages, but is also due to cancer patients undergoing more frequent scanning.

Radiologists play a vital role in performing and interpreting CT and MRI scans. Shortages of these imaging specialists can therefore lead to a backlog which delays cancer diagnoses or surgeries.

The percentage of patients beginning cancer treatment within 62 days of being urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer has been falling steadily since 2013, and was 86.9 per cent in April to June this year.

In September, radiologist vacancies at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness led to claims by the local MSP that patients were waiting longer for X-rays and scans. Two of the three vacancies had occurred in the six months to September, while the third post had been unfilled for 18 months.

The Scottish Government has pledged to fund at least 50 new trainee posts over the next five years, but the College said more needed to be done.

Dr Grant Baxter, chair of the RCR Standing Scottish Committee, said: “The RCR accepts there is no quick fix and so was extremely pleased with the Government’s recent announcement of a long-term commitment to fund at least 50 new trainee radiologist posts over the next five years.

“However, while this training pledge is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and will cover the tsunami of retirements, there remain, currently 50 plus vacancies nation-wide.

“It is clear there is still much more to do to alleviate the shortage of consultants. Health leaders and Government need to focus on the ever-growing demand for imaging, and in particular on its key role in cancer diagnosis and care if improvements in patient outcomes are to be achieved, as well as the need to expand crucial life-saving interventional radiology capacity across Scotland.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have already increased the number of radiology consultants by more than 40 per cent in the last 10 years and have increased training places by 20 per cent in the last four years.
“We are taking action to ensure we have enough radiologists for the future, working with NHS boards and the professions, including the College of Radiologists, to make sure we have the right numbers in the right place conducting the right procedures.
“Last month the Health Secretary announced an additional £3 million to increase the number of radiology trainees in Scotland by at least fifty over the next five years. This was in the context of our wider package of measures to improve waiting times for diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients in Scotland.”