Following the Government’s announcement that pay increases for NHS workers must come from existing budgets, NHS leaders are being forced to cut investment in the expansion of diagnostic capacity and new technologies, including improved IT infrastructure, two essential areas required to tackle the NHS backlog.
The Government has confirmed it will increase the pay of NHS doctors by 4.5% but had not budgeted for around £1.8 billion of this cost. With no extra money committed to the NHS, it has been determined the burden of this cost will fall on diagnostic services, exacerbating pressure on a thinly stretched workforce, hindering attempts to reduce the COVID-exacerbated backlog, and endangering patient’s lives.
Diagnostic professionals, especially radiologists, are crucial to a functioning health service. Over 80% of hospital pathways involve imaging and its expert interpretation by clinical radiologists, often before treatment can begin. The earlier an illness is spotted, the higher the chance of it being successfully treated.
However, the diagnostic workforce is already facing challenges due to decades of underfunding. The Royal College of Radiologist’s 2021 Workforce Census found that there is a shortfall of 30% (1,453) clinical radiologist consultants in England. This shortfall led to 63% of radiology clinical directors say there are insufficient radiologists to deliver safe and effective patient care. Without further action to tackle the crisis, this shortfall is forecasted to increase to 39% (2,707) by 2026.
Cuts to diagnostic capacity and new technologies will hit patient outcomes hard: without investment at the beginning of the patient pathway, the NHS’s ability to meet patients’ needs, improve patient outcomes and save lives through early diagnosis will be severely hindered.
Dr Jeanette Dickson, President of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: “Demand for diagnostic services increases year on year. The NHS needs a long-term workforce strategy and sustainable funding for a world-leading diagnostic service - not more devastating cuts.
"Diagnostic services are central to the success of several Government strategies, such as the Long- Term Plan, to ensure patients are diagnosed and therefore treated faster. Budget cuts will detrimentally impact upon cancer patients’ outcomes, as well as their options for successful treatment.
"There is no doubt that the diversion of funding will have a catastrophic effect on an already stretched and under-staffed radiology workforce, working day in and day out to tackle the extremely high backlog and provide safe patient care.
"We need the government and future Prime Minister to prevent service cuts, wake up to the scale of workforce shortages and commit to a sustainable funding and workforce plan, otherwise patients will suffer."