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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Scan delays 'put patients at risk'
The NHS suffers from a lack of staff and equipment
Almost half a million people are being forced to wait for important scans at NHS hospitals.

A report by the independent watchdog the Audit Commission shows huge delays in radiology services in hospitals across England and Wales.

It blames shortages in equipment and staff, and inefficient use of machines.

There may be patients with diseases who if they were diagnosed earlier could have a better chance of survival

Prof Helen Carty
Royal College of Radiologists
And it warns the delays are causing a "bottleneck" in the NHS and are preventing many patients from getting the medical care they need.

Doctors believe the long waits could be putting the lives of some patients at risk.

The report also reveals many patients in need of MRI and CT scans - which can detect cancer and heart defects - are waiting months to be seen.

Long waits

It found that 110,000 patients were waiting for MRI scans in March 2001. While the average wait was five months, many patients were waiting almost nine months to have the test.

Another 128,000 were waiting an average of two months for a general ultrasound. But at some hospitals, patients wait as long as three months.

There were similar long waits for colon tests, gynaecological ultrasounds and CT scans.

Generally, doctors prioritise those patients who are suspected of having life-threatening diseases like cancer or brain tumours and these are seen more quickly.

Prof Mike Richards
Prof Richards: problems are being addressed
Most patients in need of X-rays were seen quickly. But those affected by long delays include those with hip and other orthopaedic problems and those with neurological symptoms like severe headaches.

Doctors acknowledged that some patients with serious conditions may be affected.

Professor Helen Carty, a senior member of the Royal College of Radiologists, told BBC News Online: "There may be patients with diseases who if they were diagnosed earlier could have a better chance of survival."

Professor Carty, who works as a consultant radiologist at Liverpool's Alder Hey Children's Hospital, said the report was a fair summary of what is going on.

The report revealed 41% of the equipment used to carry out scans on the NHS is out-of-date.

Staff shortages

It also acknowledged a huge shortage of staff was contributing to many of the delays.

Some radiology services are creating a bottleneck in the system and delaying patient care

Sir Andrew Foster
Audit Commission,
There is an estimated national shortage of 5,000 radiographers while almost one in seven radiologist posts are vacant.

The commission called on the Department of Health to draw up a national strategy to tackle these staff shortages.

However, the report also found some hospitals use their equipment much more effectively than others.

For example, some hospitals carry out 4,000 MRI scans each year while others complete just 2,000.

The commission urged NHS trusts to review the way they used the equipment to ensure they were being as productive as possible.

The controller of the Audit Commission, Sir Andrew Foster, said the findings highlighted the need for hospitals to learn from each other.

"There are concerns that some radiology services are creating a bottleneck in the system and delaying patient care," he said.

More equipment

The Department of Health said the situation had improved since the Audit Commission's figures were compiled.

Mike Stone, Patients Association
Mr Stone called for action to improve services
A spokeswoman said: "Over 100m has already been provided for new equipment. In the 16 months since the Audit Commission data was collected there are 80 new CT scanners and 21 new MRI scanners in use in the NHS."

She added that a "major new initiative" to expand the radiology workforce is underway with extra training places and posts.

Mike Richards, the government's 'cancer czar', told the BBC the issues were being addressed as a "high priority".

"It is a very serious problem. It is being dealt with," he said.

But Mike Stone of the Patients' Association told the BBC: "This whole area does need looking at and the question need to be asked is when is it going to be looked at and when is it going to get better."

Have you had to wait for a scan at a NHS hospital? Tell us your experiences.

Have your say

They initially wrote the wrong body part to be scanned!

Yvonne, England
I've just been told that the next available appointment for an ultrasound is in November. It took two weeks for them to book me an appointment and they initially wrote the wrong body part to be scanned! I'm intending to go private, they have no idea what is wrong with me and three months is a long time wait to find out.
Yvonne, England

Recently I required a MRI scan and was told that I would have to wait 11 months to have this procedure in the North Staffordshire area. In the end I was forced to pay 450 for a private scan because the results of the scan would determine my ability to continue to work.
James, UK

After several years of being told by GPs that there was nothing wrong with my neck I finally got a referral to an orthopaedic surgeon with an obvious problem in the major neck muscle. I waited a year to get a consultation, then five months to get an MRI scan. I waited two months for the results, now the surgeon doesn't think they did the right type of scan so I have to have a further one. In the meantime I can hardly move my head, my muscle has lost all it's bulk and I am in constant pain with a condition that has been allowed to develop since I have been in the NHS system.
Sarah Morgan, England

I have so far been waiting a year for an MRI scan on my knee to identify what is wrong so I can get treatment. The delay is causing me problems as the pain I get hinders my ability to do my job as well as stopping me doing things I enjoy such as cycling and even walking. I appreciate that my condition is not life threatening but the fact that I am in pain causes problems for me on a day to day basis as I am allergic to the pain killers I have been prescribed. I hope to have the scan in November which is a wait of 15 months from the initial referral.
Lou Mason, England

The delays are caused by staff not wanting to change working practices to provide a more efficient service

Trevor, UK
I work in the NHS and some of the delays are caused by staff (mostly doctors though not always) not wanting to change working practices to provide a more efficient and effective service. There is a huge culture problem in the NHS and more money alone will not solve this. There is inadequate senior management clout to force the agenda for change in most NHS hospitals.
Trevor, UK

The architectural practice I work for just completed work on a new MRI and CT scanner installation in Wrexham and I understand there were another five CT scanners bought for Wales at the same time - so the provision does seem to be on the increase.
John, UK

I am a cancer patient and can honestly say that I have never experienced long waiting times for scans. I have had many CT scans and ultrasounds at hospitals in London, Surrey and the South West and have always had prompt appointments. The longest waiting list I was on was for a specialised PET scan, of which there are very few machines in the country, and then I waited only two weeks. Although I completely agree that the NHS is under funded and poorly managed, and I have experienced many other problems, I also wish to give credit where credit is due.
Sarah, Cornwall

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
The BBC's Jill Higgins
"Quick throughput is vital"
Audit Commission director of health Peter Wilkinson
"At any given moment there will be about half a million people waiting for radiology"
Professor of Paediatric Radiology Helen Carty
"In the vast majority of departments they're doing their best with what they've got"
See also:

01 Nov 01 | England
27 Jan 00 | Scotland
18 Jun 01 | N Ireland
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