Royal colleges have the welcomed the Labour leader’s recent commitment to improving cancer diagnosis waiting times but have suggested that significant extra resources would be needed.
A future Labour government would guarantee a maximum wait of no more than one week for cancer tests and results.
Dr Giles Maskell, president of the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR), said that if the plans could be realised they would be good for patients.
He added: “The main obstacle to achieving faster imaging tests and results is the severe shortage of radiologists in the UK. We have around 48 trained radiologists per million population and this has remained almost static for the past five years.
“This compares very poorly with other European countries…Meanwhile, for the last 10 years the number of CT scans performed has increased by 10.3% each year and for MRI scans by 12% each year.
“Further growth can be expected and would obviously be needed under the Labour Party’s proposals. We therefore suggest that the first priority for any additional investment in early diagnosis should be the training of additional radiologists to begin to address the severe shortfall.”
Ed Miliband said he would spend £750m over five years to 2020 from a new levy on tobacco firms on new equipment and extra medical staff to ensure that Britain can match the best cancer survival rates in Europe. This would save 10,000 lives a year, he said.
RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker said: “Patients deserve a better deal on cancer, and giving GPs easier access to diagnostics such as CT and MRI scans and ultrasound could make a real difference – as it would make it far easier for family doctors to pick up on early symptoms and get test results back to patients more quickly.
“However, to ensure that Mr Miliband’s one-week target can be delivered it is critical that, as well as investing in the necessary hardware, we recruit an additional 8,000 GPs – as general practice is in the midst of a major workforce crisis, with rapidly growing patient demand and fewer doctors per capita.”
The changes would apply in England though the devolved nations would, under current arrangements, receive the equivalent in extra funding which they can allocate as they see fit.
The announcement by Miliband is designed to improve cancer treatment which has declined over the last four years, according to Labour. The party says that there has been a fivefold increase in the number of patients waiting longer than six weeks for key cancer tests – up from 1,856 patients in May 2010 to 10,616 patients in August 2014.
Labour has also accused the coalition of cutting spending on cancer services in real terms over the course of the parliament by £790m. The median wait from a request by a GP for an abdominal ultrasound to the rest result currently stands at 29 days, up from 23 days in 2012.
Maskell added: “Once firm plans are in place for the necessary expansion of the workforce, our second priority would be investment in the IT infrastructure needed to support new models of service delivery by networking radiology services between NHS organisations. The value of any further investment in modern scanning equipment could only be realised once the workforce and infrastructure issues have been addressed.”