Opinion: heeding the RCR’s capacity calls

By Dr. George McInnes, Consultant Radiologist at Poole Hospital

As we all know, capacity challenges seem to be an ongoing feature of the European radiology scene. Far from nearing a resolution, though, in some markets the situation appears to be getting worse.

Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in the National Health Service (NHS) bodies of the UK.

The main UK organisation tasked with sounding the alarm over radiologist shortages is the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR), and it is hard not to miss the sense of growing panic accompanying many of its recent announcements.

In December, for example, the RCR blasted a cancer workforce plan published by Health Education England, an executive non-departmental public body of the Department of Health. The trainee doctor numbers envisaged in the plan were “a drop in the ocean,” said the RCR.

The College’s president, Dr Nicola Strickland, said the RCR was grateful of a commitment to fund 35 new clinical radiologist training posts per year, but pointed out that imaging departments across England already had more than 300 vacant radiology jobs.

The extra trainee posts “will only scratch the surface,” she said.

Against this backdrop, the RCR was understandably supportive last month of a plan by NHS Scotland to go on an international recruitment campaign with the aim of boosting Scottish radiologist numbers by 10%.

NHS Scotland was looking to fill 32 vacancies with candidates from as far afield as Western Europe, India, Australia, the USA and Canada.

For people coming from Europe, though, the matter is complicated by seemingly interminable doubts over what will happen to foreigners working in the UK after Brexit.

In another alarming development last December, it emerged that UK lawmakers might junk Europe’s Working Time Regulations, which protect radiologists and others from working excessive hours and thus potentially increasing work-related risks.

The RCR joined the British Medical Association and other medical organisations in decrying the move.

“With health and care services under more pressure than ever before, and staff being called upon to work ever-longer hours, what is needed is proper resourcing and investment to increase our workforce, not the removal of safeguards,” said the bodies in a strongly-worded letter.

Are these messages getting through, though? While the Scottish recruitment campaign is a welcome sign, I fear policymakers in the UK are far too worried about navigating the stormy waters of Brexit to spend much time on radiology’s capacity problem.

This is leaving the NHS to muddle through as best it can. Private-sector services are helping to bridge the gap, but unless they can help train more radiologists their impact can only be short-lived. Luckily, some have taken up the training imperative.

Fans of the NHS may claim it is not right to use public money to pay for private services. Increasingly, though, there is little option: scans have to be read in a timely way or lives could be at risk.

At this rate, we may have to stop worrying about public-private distinctions and start thinking in new ways about how we deal with the capacity crisis. After all, bodies such as the RCR can only cry for help for so long before it’s too late.

George McInnes has been a consultant radiologist at Poole Hospital since February 2009 and has worked as a consultant in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bermuda and Barcelona. His interests include interventional radiology,  and musculoskeletal MRI and his radiology experience includes plain-film reporting, CT and ultrasound. He is a clinical advisor to Telemedicine Clinic in the UK

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