Waits of four weeks or longer for scan results are having a “knock-on effect” on patients, delaying their care and putting them at risk of deteriorating health and death, experts have warned.
The Royal College of Radiologists is calling for more staff to be trained to address “chronic” shortages.
Analysis on NHS England data by the college found 225,000 patients waited four weeks or more for results between July and September 2023.
In August, the NHS outlined a new target for imaging reporting, stating no turnaround “should take longer than four weeks”.
It said the benchmark “is considered a stepping stone” to a more ambitious target, such as two weeks, in the future.
Dr Katharine Halliday, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: “These shortfalls mean too many patients are having to wait too long for their diagnosis.
“This has a knock-on effect on all stages of the patient pathway – because of a slow diagnosis, patients may be delayed from either starting treatment or receiving the next stage of appropriate care.
“There is evidence to show that a patient’s health deteriorates while they are waiting on the pathway, and we know that for every four weeks a patient is delayed from starting cancer treatment, their risk of death increases by approximately 10%.
“Similarly, long waiting periods to receive test results can cause huge anxiety and stress for patients and their families.”
The college also found that in the first nine months of 2023, some 532,000 patients waited over the recommended timeframe, an increase of 16,000 on the same period in 2022.
Dr Halliday said the “heart” of the issue “lies in the chronic shortages of clinical radiologists”.
“The expertise and dedication of our radiologists are indisputable, but their numbers are not keeping pace with the increasing demands,” she added.
“The impact of these shortages on patient care is profound. There is an urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address staffing shortfalls and ensure timely diagnoses for those relying on our healthcare system.”
The college is calling for the workforce to be bolstered by increasing training posts to meet demand for services, as well as expanding training capacity, both in terms of training staff and physical space.
“Trainees, particularly as they become more senior, bring significant benefits to departments, contributing vital reporting capacity and reducing the need for outsourcing,” Dr Halliday said.
She added that working conditions should also be improved to enhance staff retention.
“Keeping experienced and highly skilled radiologists working in the system must be a priority.
“Trusts and health boards should take active steps to improve doctors’ day-to-day working conditions to make sure they feel valued by their employers. This should include employing sufficient administrative staff to support doctors, exploring flexible working patterns, and providing access to rest spaces and food and drink.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Thanks to the hard work of staff, latest data shows the NHS delivered a record number of diagnostic tests for patients in November, with over 2.3 million checks and scans, and over 200,000 people received a definitive diagnosis or had cancer ruled out within four weeks – the highest since the introduction of the new faster diagnosis standard.
“The NHS has rolled out over 140 community diagnostic centres across England – with a further 20 on track to be delivered by April 2024 – to offer ‘one stop shops’ in more convenient locations for patients.
“Community diagnostic centres have delivered over 6 million potentially lifesaving tests, checks and scans in total so far, as part of key plans to expand capacity and reduce waiting lists.”