RADIOLOGY is one of the less visible professions in the NHS, but it plays a critical role.

Frontline doctors and nurses rely on the skills of radiologists to carry out and interpret scans from complex chest x-rays and CT scans to checking for fractures.

The former can help identify cancers or heart conditions, but it is worth pointing out that even a missed fracture on a humble x-ray can lead to expensive surgery where a simpler operation or none at all might have been needed.

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While technological advances have made scans increasingly more sophisticated and accurate, the number of skilled staff able to interpret them has grown more slowly.

Demand is outstripping supply putting radiology services in crisis. According to the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR), the number of MRI and CT scans carried out in Scottish hospitals has risen by more than 60 per cent in the last six years, but there has been a corresponding increase of just seven per cent in the number of full time radiologists.

This is plainly of concern. A snapshot study in English acute hospitals last year found a quarter of a million scans had been awaiting analysis for more than a month. Comparable figures for Scotland are not known, and although the recruitment crisis here is thought to be less severe, that is no reason for complacency.

The RCR says radiology in NHS Scotland is similarly swamped, with 50 jobs – ten per cent of posts – officially vacant. Even more recent figures suggest the current vacancy level is 13 per cent.

Further evidence of strain is provided by the £4.6m the Scottish NHS spent on locum cover for staff shortfalls in radiology in 2016.

This is a clear failure of workforce planning. The Scottish Government claims it has moved to address the problem with a commitment to fund at least 50 new trainee radiologist posts over the next five years. That is welcome, but 19 per cent of radiologists are expected to retire in the next five years and experts have called for a minimum of 20-25 additional radiology trainees every year for the next five years.

Meanwhile this is a problem which needs both long term and short term solutions.

Encouraging more young medics to move into radiology is all very well, but with five years of further specialist training needed in an increasingly complex and skilled role, it will not address the immediate shortages.

Recruiting more staff internationally is a short term answer. However efforts to develop this solution have frequently been frustrated, according to the RCR, by delays with General Medical Council registration, and human resources and visa requirements.

Policies of the Scottish Government, including its Cancer Strategy, have a direct effect on the increased demand for radiology. For this reason and for the wider benefit of patient care, ministers need to address the immediate crisis – and plan to put Scotland’s radiology service on a sustainable footing for the future.