"We need to address the chronic staff shortages, our patients deserve better"

As our 48hr strike action across HSCNI begins, hear from our members about why they are taking a stand.

Published: 21 September 2023 Trade Union & IR

Our members across Northern Ireland will be going on strike for 48 hours from 8am today, in an effort to tackle the recruitment and retention problems besetting the profession – which have left almost 10 per cent of the country waiting for diagnostic tests.

Ninety per cent of those who voted in the strike ballot said that they wanted to take industrial action in order to secure improvements to pay and conditions, increase recruitment and retention of radiography professionals – and thus cut waiting times for patients.

Radiography professionals support nine out of 10 patients in Health and Social Care Northern Ireland. They work in diagnostic services, carrying out X-rays, MRI and CT scans, and in therapeutic services, planning and delivering radiotherapy to cancer patients.

But too few radiographers are being recruited or retained. As a result, 188,881 people in Northern Ireland – nearly 10 per cent of the population – are now waiting for a diagnostic test. This wait means that treatment such as radiotherapy is delayed, cases become more complex and, for some patients, even a two-week delay can mean the difference between life and death.

Working above and beyond

A diagnostic radiographer in a Northern Ireland hospital said that she worked so many hours to ensure her patients received the best possible care in the face of staff shortages that she ended up endangering her own health.

She said: “I’m a people person. I like caring. I went into this job because I have empathy, but I don’t have time to have empathy now. You’re constantly thinking of time: ‘I have to get the next patient.’  

“There’s not a shadow of a doubt that I love my job. But I felt trapped: I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I had no work-life balance. I was working at least 60 hours a week, jumping in and out of day and night shifts. It was tough going. Then there would be a call: ‘Can anybody come in?’ I’d know they were in dire straits, and they need someone to cover.  

“No-one forced me to work the number of hours I worked, but I didn’t want to let my team down, and we were really short-staffed. There was no capacity.”

The radiographer then developed a serious infection. She walked into her shift doubled over with pain, but insisting that she was able to work.

“You have that drive in you, when you go into a vocation like radiography,” she said.

“Eventually, I went to A&E, and I was given morphine right away, because my bloods were so bad. I was given pain relief, and then I said, ‘I can go back to work now.’  

“They said: ‘No you can’t. You’re being admitted.’”

Significantly underpaid 

Cora Regan, Northern Ireland national officer for the Society of Radiographers, said: “We hear stories like this again and again. Our members tell us that they regularly work over and above their contracted hours to care for patients and attempt to reduce waiting times.

“Many departmental managers now automatically rota radiographers for overtime – rather than asking for overtime on a voluntary basis – as it’s the only way they can make sure there’s enough staff available.

“At the same time, they’re being paid a salary that has fallen significantly behind what radiographers earn in the rest of the UK. Radiographers in Scotland are now paid 12 per cent more than in Northern Ireland.

“Even in England, where SoR members are due to take strike action again next month, a radiographer’s starting salary is more than £1,300 higher than it would be in Northern Ireland.

“The pressure to increase working hours, coupled with low pay, means that many radiography professionals are leaving Northern Ireland – or the profession itself – and they are not being replaced in adequate numbers.”

The radiographer with the infection has since left her position, and is combining locum work with teaching and private work – a choice that increasing numbers of radiographers are making. 

She said: “In the NHS, you hear quotes of figures instead of patients – how many scans do you do a day? We can’t quote figures, because every patient who walks into the department is completely different. Then they’d say, ‘Why are you behind?’  

“But we’re behind because there’s no capacity. I hope the strike will achieve recognition that there aren’t enough people. There aren’t enough staff.  

“I hope the strike will highlight what’s going on. The public don’t see staff crying or breaking down. They don’t see the tears. The staff shortages are so bad it’s scary. Go into any department in any trust, and it’s the same story. This isn’t acceptable any more.”  

Ms Regan agrees. “Taking strike action is never an easy decision. But it’s overwhelmingly clear from our members’ determination to strike for 48 hours that they believe the current situation is unsustainable.

“We need to offer our radiography professionals considerably better pay and conditions if we want to be able to keep them in our hospitals – and avoid patient waiting lists growing even longer than they are already.”

Investment will save lives

The Society believes the HSC could reduce waiting lists, save lives and save taxpayers’ money by offering a fair starting salary for radiography professionals, as well as a move to restore pay levels for current staff over several years, from the 2023-24 pay award onwards.

Our profession needs immediate investment in undergraduate and postgraduate training, as well as “earn as you learn” apprenticeship schemes.

SoR representatives from each trust have worked with trust executives to provide life and limb cover for patients during the two-day strike. This usually consists of the same staffing levels that would be provided on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Ms Regan said: “Radiographers are key to the transformation of health services in Northern Ireland. We believe that these measures will dramatically cut waiting lists, thus improving patients’ care, boosting the wellbeing of radiographers and saving the HSC millions in agency and outsourcing costs.

“Our members deserve better. Our patients deserve better.”