The breast screening workforce does not have the capacity to absorb the thousands of catch-up mammograms required following the serious failure in the Breast Screening Programme, the SCoR and two other organisations have claimed.
Following an IT error that saw hundreds of thousands of women aged between 68-71 not being sent their final invitation to routine screening between 2009-2018, the Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised that all women affected under the age of 72 would be offered a catch-up screening appointment within six months.
But in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, the Society, the Royal College of Radiologists, and Breast Cancer Now have today warned that the screening workforce is already ‘stretched beyond the limit’ and does not have capacity to cope with extra workload of catch-up screening as well as maintaining routine screening for women aged 50-70 years.
The organisations have urged the government to deliver on its pledge to take ‘major steps’ to expand the Screening Programme’s capacity, to ensure those affected can be assessed without a disruption to routine screening, or to the two-week wait for those referred urgently with suspected breast cancer.
The letter, co-signed by the Society's president Gareth Thomas, Nicola Strickland of the Royal College of Radiologists, and Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, reads:
Following the serious failure that saw hundreds of thousands of women miss their final breast screening invites, it is right that the Health and Social Care Secretary has promised those affected aged up to 72 a catch-up appointment within six months.
But, while he also vowed there will be no disruption to routine screening, we are extremely concerned that the breast screening workforce does not have the capacity to absorb such a crisis. Upholding this commitment will require extra evening and weekend clinics across the country, run by screening staff already stretched beyond the limit.
There simply isn’t enough available staff to cope with this extra workload on ‘overtime’ alone. While the number of women attending screening in England increased by 13% from 2012-2016, the breast radiologist workforce grew by just 6%.
A 2017 Public Health England survey found the screening service to be 215 radiographers and mammography staff short - a 20% shortfall based on uptake - with just 18% of units having enough staff to cope with existing demand.
The Screening Programme remains critical to early detection in England, preventing around 1,300 deaths from breast cancer each year. With letters already going out to those affected by the failure, we urgently need the Government to deliver on its pledge to take ‘major steps’ to expand the programme’s capacity.
We need a robust, realistic and fully-resourced workforce plan to deliver the necessary catch-up screening and ensure the future of this world-leading service.
Baroness Delyth Morgan said, “We cannot ignore that the catch-up appointments needed to correct this colossal failure risk pushing an overstretched screening workforce to breaking point.
“Unless these staff shortages are addressed," she continued, "It is inevitable that some women will experience delays in receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, or peace of mind, which would be extremely distressing. This is completely unacceptable and we need the government to heed these wake-up calls and deliver on its promise to expand the screening workforce as soon as possible.
“Thousands of women are rightly being offered catch-up screening, but it will fall on the same workforce responsible for performing mammograms for those referred urgently with symptoms of breast cancer to pick up the strain - and it’s vital we ensure women do not pay the price.
“Early diagnosis is absolutely essential in giving patients the best chance of surviving their breast cancer. While there are some risks as well as benefits, comprehensive evidence has shown that routine screening prevents deaths from breast cancer – and we’d encourage all women to attend their appointments.”
Gareth Thomas added, "All the screening workforce work hard to deliver the best possible services for patients. Radiography staff has shown in the past, by innovative use of skills mix and role development, that increases in services can be managed.
"However funding for training, including for additional staff where necessary, and new roles is essential."