A “chronic shortage” of radiologists at Altnagelvin Hospital could potentially result in the loss of breast cancer screening services for local women, it has emerged.

A newly published report has revealed that a chronic shortage of radiologists in the Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT) could potentially lead to the suspension of the Breast Screening service provided by the Western Breast Unit at Altnagelvin - resulting in a “loss of service” to ladies in the screening group.

At the latest Western Trust board meeting, the Corporate Risk Register & Assurance Framework report highlighted staff shortages in this area as being an “extreme risk”.

The report also raised concerns about a reduction in provision of breast radiologists for triple assessment clinics resulting in risk of delayed diagnosis of breast cancer.

It was cited as a highly visible and sensitive area of work which is likely to attract a “high level of public and media interest should either service be unavailable.”

The author of the report said this could be “very damaging to the trust’s reputation” as a provider of screening and symptomatic services.

Breast Screening targets such as reporting times and assessment times are at risk, particularly during sudden surges in demand following TV campaigns for instance.

And with just two breast radiologists, the report warned that 52-week cover cannot be guaranteed at present.

In terms of cancer services and meeting ministerial waiting time targets, the Western Trust continues to outperform most, if not all, other Trusts in Northern Ireland.

A Western Trust spokesperson commented on staff shortages underlined in the report: “Between April 18 and February 19 the Western Trust saw 2,943 patients referred for urgent assessment for suspect breast cancer. During that time, six patients waited more than 14 days.

“The Trust treats approximately 340 breast cancer cases per year and continues to be one of the best performing health Trust’s in Northern Ireland for meeting ministerial targets in relation to referrals and treatment for this cancer site.

“There are currently three consultant radiologists. All three consultants work additional sessions in order to meet the demands of the service and to ensure the provision of timely high-quality treatment and care for their patients.”

International recruitment

The spokesperson added: “The Western Trust was the first of the Trusts to appoint a Consultant Radiographer to undertake many of the functions traditionally done by a radiologist and is recognised to be at the forefront of this role extension in Northern Ireland.

“In addition, the Western Trust is actively engaged in recruitment processes including international recruitment to fill any vacant posts.  We also continue to work with the Department of Health (DoH), Health and Social Care (HSCB) and other Trusts on the future delivery of breast services."

There are four screening units in NI, two of which have a full complement of breast radiologists and one is in a similar position to WHSCT.

The WHSCT has approached the other trusts in NI for occasional support with “very limited success”.

The Trust was said to be actively recruiting two breast radiologists but is “unlikely to be successful” in this round as there are no training radiologists in this specialty who have expressed an interest in the Western Trust.

At present the Trust has two breast radiologists and a third who undertakes symptomatic work on an ad hoc basis since his retirement.

As part of its action plan the Western Trust aims to immediately commence regional discussions with HSCB or other trusts to enquire if radiology breast resources can be made readily available to the WHSCT.

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