Breast cancer diagnostic and screening services across the UK are under threat because of serious staffing problems.
There are fears that the NHS's breast cancer screening programme will not be able to cope with the growing numbers of women who will require mammograms in coming years when the age of eligibility is extended from 50-70 to 43-73.
‘Hospitals are facing a chronic shortage of specialists to both carry out and analyse mammograms to see whether women have breast cancer.’
Women may suffer a delay in finding out that they have breast cancer because the NHS is struggling with a serious and worsening lack of radiologists and radiographers, according to health experts.
Many experts in breast radiology are planning to retire in coming years and there are also large vacancy rates in the field, the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) said. The looming workforce crisis could lead to a "severe" impact on diagnosis of the disease and screening programmes, the College added.
Staff shortages are so common that almost one in 10 (8%) consultant posts in NHS breast radiology services are unfilled and a quarter of breast cancer screening programme units operate with just two or one breast radiologists, according to RCR surveys.
"The skill of breast radiologists in interpreting mammograms and other complex scans is vital to the early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as in the delivery of cancer screening programmes. Without more breast radiologists to tackle this increasing demand we cannot hope to achieve the best possible health outcomes for patients," said Dr Hilary Dobson, the chair of the British Society of Breast Radiology.
Dr Nicola Strickland, president of the RCR, said: "The International Day of Radiology should be a day when radiologists all over the world celebrate our profession and the tremendous impact radiology can have in improving health outcomes for millions of patients, often saving lives through early and accurate diagnosis of scans and X-rays.
But it's difficult to celebrate in the UK where we only have seven radiologists per 100,000 people, the third lowest in Europe. Urgent investment from the Government and NHS leadership across the UK is needed now.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "We're helping the NHS manage increased demand in cancer services by making staffing a priority, with 20% more clinical radiologists since 2010."
A spokeswoman for Health Education England added: "We recognise the need to train more general radiologists and it is a priority for us to work with partners to find ways to deliver these in the years to come, as we recognise the importance to patients of the diagnostic capability this specialty provides.