NHS IN CRISIS: Medical scans sent to far off as Australia for analysis

Thursday 3 November 2022

NHS services are a horror story and radiology is an X-ray-ted movie

By Bill Heaney

Scans of NHS Scotland patients have been sent as far away as Australia for analysis by private companies, according to new information obtained via Freedom of Information requests.

Tory leader Douglas Ross challenged the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon over the practice at First Minister’s Questions in parliament today.

She blamed the situation on a shortage of radiologists.

In a testy exchange, Mr Ross said that in total, over 900,000 scans have been sent to private radiology and imaging companies for analysis since 2018-19, at a cost of nearly £30 million to the NHS.

Analysis from the Royal College of Radiologists earlier this year found that Scotland’s NHS needs more than 100 additional consultant radiologists than it currently employs.

Tory leader Douglas Ross and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr Ross also challenged the First Minister over delayed discharge, which reached the worst level on record this week, despite the SNP promising to eradicate it nearly eight years ago.

Finally, Douglas Ross raised the case of a pensioner who had to phone her GP surgery 120 times before she got through. The woman, who was seeking treatment for a lung infection, said: “This is the first time in my life I feel I don’t have proper medical care.”

Douglas Ross said these failures showed that Scotland’s NHS was “in crisis at every level”, and he urged the First Minister to provide it with extra support this winter.

Ms Sturgeon’s practice of answering questions with percentages rather than actual numbers make it difficult for observers to get a clear picture of the situation.

Douglas Ross said: “I’ve previously raised examples of Scottish patients being sent down south for NHS treatment because they can’t get it in Scotland.

“But we’ve now learned that half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent sending thousands of vital medical scans abroad – some as far afield as Australia.

“Sending scans to private companies on another continent is not just expensive, it’s embarrassing.

“Scotland’s NHS needs more than 100 additional consultant radiologists than it currently employs, but all across our health service, serious issues are mounting.

“This week, delayed discharge in our NHS reached its worst ever level, despite the SNP promising to ‘eradicate’ it nearly eight years ago.

“Patients are taking up beds in our hospitals at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds when they should be able to leave, and at a time when our NHS can least afford it.

“But the problems are not confined to our hospitals. We’ve seen reports of a pensioner who had to phone her GP 120 times before she got through. The pensioner said it was the first time in her life she felt she didn’t have proper medical care.

“Whether the First Minister wants to admit it or not, Scotland’s NHS is in crisis at every level.

“Patient scans are being sent abroad, waiting lists are at record levels, the situation at accident and emergency is the most critical it has ever been and delayed discharge is plaguing our hospitals worse than ever before.

“Given the SNP’s mismanagement of our NHS, it’s little wonder staff and patients alike are terrified of what awaits them this winter.”

Ms Sturgeon played down the level of concern by stating that rather than terrified about what is to come they were “worried”.

  • Since 2018/19, NHS Scotland has sent more than 900,000 scans to private companies for analysis, at a cost of almost £30 million. In total, at least 919,990 MRI, CT and X-Rays were sent to private teleradiology or commercial imaging companies at a cost of least £29,568,200. In 2022/23 so far, at least 141,341 scans have already been sent to private companies. In 2018/19, the yearly spend was £5,816,286. But in 2021/22, yearly spend was £7,963,609, an increase of 36.9%. (Scottish Conservative FOI, available on request).
  • Scans from NHS Borders have been sent to private companies in Australia and Barcelona for analysis. NHS Borders has sent 18.2% (14,141) of its MRI, CT and X-Rays to private teleradiology or commercial imaging companies – at a cost of £467,894 – since 2018/19. NHS Borders use TMC to provide this service. As TMC are based in Barcelona and Australia, all 14,141 scans were sent abroad for review. (Scottish Conservative FOI, available on request). 
  • According to the Royal College of Radiologists, Scotland’s workforce shortfall was 23% against demand in 2021. That’s the equivalent of 103 additional consultant radiologists. The shortfall is predicted to increase to 30% by 2026, or 189 consultants. Scotland is also falling behind in IR consultants per million population at 8.6 in 2021, which is significantly lower than England’s 11.2. (Clinical radiology census report 2021, Royal College of Radiologists, 9 June 2022, link).
  • The average number of beds occupied per day due to delayed discharges is at its worst ever level. On average 1,832 beds were occupied per day due to delayed discharge in September 2022, the highest figure since the current guidance came into place in July 2016. This is an increase of 2% compared to last month when the daily average was 1,798, and 13.4% on September last year when the daily average was 1,615. (Delayed discharges in NHSScotland monthly, 1 November 2022, link).

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