PATIENTS in Fife face waiting up to 20 weeks for a routine MRI scan, as a leading radiologist warned of “inevitable and significant” imaging delays as the NHS restarts.

NHS Fife confirmed it currently expects patients to be waiting around 17 to 20 weeks for a non-urgent MRI, compared to a national target of no more than six weeks.

The delays will impact any “non-urgent” patients, which could include check-ups for cancer patients to make sure the disease has not returned, brain scans to diagnose possible neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis or epilepsy, back problems, or arthritis.

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It comes after doctors in the health board were left stunned by a memo circulated by radiologists last week telling them the waiting time would be 30 weeks and “will continue to grow” while they are restricted to scanning urgent patients only.

It blamed the need for “safe social distancing guidance and new infection control measures within our hospitals”.

It added: “Referrals for patients who are currently on the routine ultrasound waiting list will be reviewed by a consultant radiologist after 10 weeks and where the priority for the patient has not changed and the request remains as routine, we will notify you that your patient may have to wait indefinitely for their MRI examination.”

NHS Fife said the memo was “out of date”.

Dr Christopher McKenna, NHS Fife’s medical director, said: “This information was based on projections from much earlier in the pandemic and does not reflect the current position for patients in Fife, which is significantly improved.

“Crucially, no patient will be expected to wait indefinitely.”

Mr McKenna added NHS Fife had been working to “maximise the capacity” once services resume, and will deploy a mobile MRI scanner in addition to the existing imaging resources from July.

“We will continue to prioritise patients based on their clinical need,” he said, adding: “The current waiting time for routine MRI examination in Fife is between 17-20 weeks and we anticipate this will reduce further once our new mobile MRI unit is on site next month.”

NHS Fife has previously been one of the best-performing health boards in Scotland on MRI waiting times, with fewer than one per cent of patients exceeding the six-week target compared to a national average of 24 per cent.

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However, it has struggled to recruit clinical radiologists, the medical specialists who analyse scans to diagnose disease.

The most recent workforce statistics, from June 2019, indicate there were eight radiologists in post but nine vacancies of at least six months.

Dr Grant Baxter, chairman of the Standing Scottish Committee of the Royal College of Radiologists, said imaging delays will be “both inevitable and significant” as the NHS restarts, with variation between areas.

Dr Baxter said: “Scanning capacity has been seriously reduced as a result of social distancing and cleaning requirements, patient backlogs, local issues and ongoing demand.”

He added that current solutions included extended working hours, using Covid-protected imaging sites and prioritising urgent cases “where possible”.

One former radiologist at NHS Fife, who did not want to be identified, said a 30-week wait would have been “completely insane”.

They said: “Maybe places like the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh are not that concerned – although I think they are – but small district general hospitals the size of Victoria Hospital in Fife are just not coping well with the situation.

“We are facing a major issue and it seems no-one is willing to make the public aware there is something like a tsunami [preparing to] explode and reveal itself in death statistics or in cancer epidemiology curves.”

There are concerns that the pause in cancer screening and a drop-off in people visiting their GP with possible cancer symptoms during the pandemic will lead to a spike in new urgent referrals – exacerbating the bottlenecks for routine MRI in the months ahead.

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Additional time will also be required to deep clean machines between patients.

“All this is happening against a backdrop of long-standing staff shortages,” said Marion O’Neill, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said six mobile MRI scanners and three CT scanners “will become operational in the coming months” in locations across Scotland to help boost diagnostic capacity.