Staff shortages halt breast cancer screening in the United Kingdom (UK). Findings of the latest survey by the Royal College of Radiologists warn of a looming crisis. Patients from the South East London, Yorkshire, Humber, Wales, and West Midlands could have their mammography appointments postponed for weeks, or may be months. Thank you very much. Women who have already had their breast screening may have to wait for eight weeks before they can get the mammograms. The acute shortage of consultant breast radiologists can transpire into a crisis if the wheels are not kicked round and that too in a timely fashion.

A recent survey conducted by the Royal College of Radiologists has raised a red flag. It seems that many of the radiologists are either on the leave or the posts are vacant. “More than a 10th of consultant breast radiologist posts were unfilled,” says the report published in the British Medical Journal today. The situation, if remained so, is likely to turn into a crisis in breast cancer screening.

The survey was conducted in 65% of the breast cancer screening units and 30% of the radiology departments in the UK. It was noted that as many as 13% of the consultant breast cancer radiologist posts were empty due either to the leave of the radiologist or unfilled vacancies. That’s double the figure in 2010.

“Though the figure relates only to units that responded, it mirrors the national picture,” says the college.

The regions with the lowest fill rate are as follows:

  • England – 27%
  • Yorkshire and the Humber – 16%
  • Wales and the West Midlands – 15%

Interestingly, Northern Ireland was the only region with a satisfactory number of reporting consultant radiologists. If not addressed early, the acute shortage of the staff can magnify into a gigantic problem soon since many of the staff radiologists are due to retire in the next few years. “21% of breast radiologists are due to retire by 2020 and 38% by 2025. All the breast radiologists in Yorkshire and the Humber and the East of England are due to retire by 2025,” reports the college.

While the survey report highlights the paucity of consultant radiologists in most of the UK, the conditions of the radiology and screening units where radiologists are present are not satisfactory either. The survey showed that 25% of the National Health Service (NHS) breast screening units had no cover for sickness or leave. Moreover, they were run by only one or two consultant radiologists. The East of England and North West regions top the list of the units with few consultant radiologists.

The red flag went a little higher when the survey found out that 80% of the screening units in the UK have employed technicians for breast screening. Only a third of the units employed a consultant radiologist. Of these radiologists, a good number is due to retire in coming years i.e., 26% in next five years, and 43% in next 10 years.

These findings are a huge concern and reflect a major issue brewing in the breast cancer screening units throughout the region. If not sorted out quickly, the future of breast cancer screening in the UK is at risk.

When asked what the screening units and radiology departments were doing to tackle the situation, the respondents said that they were looking for part-time consultants to provide symptomatic breast screening to the patients. While another trust said they were considering posting for the vacancy of the consultant radiologist in the newspaper.

Breast Cancer Facts

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women accounting for 29% of the newly diagnosed cancers. An estimated 231,840 new cases of breast cancer emerged in 2015. Breast cancer can also affect men but the ratio is far lower i.e., in 2015, some 2,350 men were diagnosed with breast cancer. Compared to black women, white women are at a heightened risk of developing breast cancer, particularly after menopause. The risk, incidence and death from breast cancer increase with age.

The risk of death due to breast cancer can be lowered by getting regular mammograms. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women aged 50 to 74 years undergo a breast exam every two years. Women aged 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor whether they can start screening and what benefits they can get with an early screening.