A million women miss mammograms amid calls for more radiographers

Covid-19 screening pause threatens surge in cases

Published: 30 September 2020 Mammography

New research estimates that around 986,000 women missed their mammograms due to breast screening programmes being paused during the pandemic.

The report by the charity Breast Cancer Now (BCN) anticipates that around 8,600 of the women now caught up in the backlog could have been living with undetected breast cancer. 

But as breast screening programmes re-start, the availability of appointments has been significantly curtailed by social distancing and infection control measures. 

The charity warns, in its report ‘Press Play: getting and keeping breast cancer services back on track’, that the combination of the backlog and more women now presenting with concerns will place huge pressure on the imaging and diagnostic workforce.

BCN chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan said: ‘Governments and NHS health bodies across the UK must set out how the influx in demand for imaging and diagnostics will be met’.

The charity calls for a demand-led, long-term plan and investment in radiography staff as part of the government’s imminent Comprehensive Spending Review. SCoR’s own submission to the review sought a further 4,000 radiography staff to address shortages across the UK.

SCoR Professional Officer for Clinical Imaging Sue Johnson, who contributed to the BCN report, said:‘We recognise this is a very anxious time for those who have missed screening slots or seek a symptomatic appointment. We will continue to work with our BCN colleagues and other stakeholders to identify where we can best make an impact.

‘We welcome the call for a commitment to recovery plans for imaging and diagnostics and support the demand for increased investment. Our members in the breast imaging workforce are working hard to reduce the backlogs and identify new ways of working that aid efficiency and improve access to diagnosis and follow up.

‘This includes promoting and embedding mammography associate apprenticeships and the role that this qualification brings as well as trialling new ways of working that increase the flexibility of our workforce.’ 

Mary Wilson, Consultant Breast Radiologist at the Nightingale Centre, Wythenshawe Hospital, and Lead for the National Breast Imaging Academy Project, said: ‘Our most valuable asset is our staff – we simply have to invest in them. We desperately need more radiologists. You can’t make a radiologist quickly, so a long-term investment plan is essential’. 

Breast screening during the pandemic:

  • The breast screening programme was officially paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and effectively paused in England, from March 2020.
  • Services resumed in Scotland on 3 August, Northern Ireland on 20 July and Wales in late summer. Although breast screening services in England were not officially paused they were effectively paused.
  • BCN has estimated the impact based on the average number of women usually screened per month and the approximate length of time that screening was suspended in each part of the UK.
  • The backlog before the screening programme restarted was 837,940 in England, 77,660 in Scotland, 47,905 in Wales and 22,856 in Northern Ireland, totalling 986,361.
  • Undetected breast cancers during the paused period were estimated at 7,374 in England, 676 in Scotland, 450 in Wales, and 155 in Northern Ireland, totalling 8,655.