A worldwide shortage of radiologists is the “most significant challenge” for breast cancer screening services, which are still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Members of the national service have warned that addressing the deficit in the radiologist workforce will be critical to keeping the service going in the next couple of years.
Speaking before an Oireachtas Committee on Health, Professor Fidelma Flanagan, lead clinical director for BreastCheck at the National Screening Service, warned that a shortage in radiologists is the most significant challenge facing the service.
“There is already a 20% deficit in our current radiologist workforce, and next year we anticipate at least two or three further retirements. There is a worldwide shortage of radiologists, as screening radiology is seen to be a challenging job in a challenging environment, and people are not necessarily choosing this job as their career choice,” she said.
“It's not about throwing money at it, it has deep roots, and it's something that really challenges the future of this programme if that doesn't change,” she said.
The Breast Check service has already come through significant challenges as the pandemic halted the national screening programme for nine months. Before the pandemic, in 2019, 170,000 women between the ages of 50 and 70 were screened as part of the routine service.
Only 56,000 women were screened in 2020, and 70,000 have been screened in the first eight months of 2021.
Last month, screening numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels, as 15,000 women were screened in September 2021, on par with September 2019.
Fiona Murphy, chief executive of the National Screening Service, says this puts the service about 6% ahead of where it expected to be at this stage, with the hope that the screening deficit can be made up by the end of 2022.
“If we continue to be able to screen as rapidly as we are doing at the moment, and we can get our mobiles around the country, then we would hope to have screened all the women that didn't get screened in 2020 this year, and we’ll screen all the 2021 people next year,” she said.
“I’m saying that on the basis that we don't have another outbreak of significant concern and we don't have further restrictions,” she said.