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Radiology networks won’t resolve workforce shortages, warns Royal College

NHSE/I reveal national strategy for 18 networks over next four years to speed up diagnoses and treatment

Caroline White

Friday, 08 November 2019

NHS England/Improvement (NHSE/I) have revealed plans* for a national strategy to create 18 radiology networks across England over the next four years in a bid to speed up diagnosis and treatment.

But the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR), which backs the move, has warned that the networks alone won’t resolve critical shortages across the NHS imaging workforce. 

Imaging networks are a key element of the Long Term Plan, which commits to the establishment of radiology networks by 2023 across England so that scan images can be accessed by clinicians “regardless of geography,” and big datasets for use in health research can be created. 

High vacancy rates across imaging services and ageing imaging equipment, coupled with rising demand, are putting extreme pressure on delivering timely imaging services and providing high-quality patient care. The data also show unwarranted variation between trusts, says NHSE/I.

“By bringing together clinical expertise through a networking model, we can reduce unwarranted variation, provide better quality care, better value services for patients and give NHS staff the opportunity to develop their careers. We can also deliver financial efficiencies, which can be reinvested into imaging services to ensure their sustainability,” it says.

The strategy, published earlier this week, sets out the case for imaging networks and the key considerations for local network leaders as the systems develop. It commits to general support and help with IT procurement, with implementation guidance expected in early 2020. 

The strategy recommends the initial creation of 24 networks, to be consolidated into 18 by 2023, but doesn’t specify their composition, on the grounds that each will need to incorporate complex local service overlaps and integration.

RCR vice president for clinical radiology Dr Caroline Rubin said “We know the lack of image-sharing across hospitals is leading to reporting backlogs and delays and harm to patients. A handful of pioneering networks that grew organically have shown it can be done, and the need for more networking is clear. 

“Networks will support out-of-hours scan reporting and faster access to specialist opinion – as well as helping departments clear backlogs and cope when they are short-staffed because of leave and illness.” 

She continued: “Imaging networks will take shape over time and be locally-led, but they must also have ongoing centralised oversight, resourcing and support. The proposed planning toolkit and local engagement from NHS agencies are extremely welcome, and their help with IT specifications and procurement will be absolutely key.”

But she warned: “They are an obvious and crucial part of the future of hospital imaging but are not the perfect solution to understaffed services – and we are grateful the national strategy recognises the need to address workforce issues. 

“Networks will not be enough to sustain NHS imaging without more investment in radiologists, radiographers and other imaging staff. The radiologist workforce alone is on course for a 31 per cent shortfall by 2023 – and the England-wide go-live of imaging networks will not change that.”   


Transforming imaging services in England: a national strategy for imaging networks. A reprot prepared by NHS England and NHS Improvement, November 2019.
 

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