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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Scan delays 'put patients at risk'
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.
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.
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.
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The report revealed 41% of the equipment used to carry out scans on the NHS is out-of-date.
It also acknowledged a huge shortage of staff was contributing to many of the delays.
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.
The Department of Health said the situation had improved since the Audit Commission's figures were compiled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
01 Nov 01 | England
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