Dr Caroline Rubin
Vice President for Clinical Radiology, The Royal College of Radiologists
Radiology is vital to healthcare but its workforce may not be able to keep up with patient demand or implement new technology due to staff shortages. Networks will enable imaging teams to pool resources and improve access to expert opinion.
Imaging networks are an emerging solution to the threat posed by radiology staff shortages, according to Caroline Rubin of The Royal College of Radiologists.
Imaging technology is both constantly advancing – with the advent of augmented scanners and rapidly developing artificial intelligence programmes – and completely crucial to day-to-day patient care, with 123,000 NHS scans conducted every single day in England.
Politicians are starting to realise that imaging is not only hugely important to NHS care, but also hugely under-resourced.
One solution that is gaining more attention is imaging networks, where radiology teams working across different hospital sites can access each other’s equipment and patient scans to share workload and expertise.
Collaboration seems obvious, as it will improve the lives of patients and clinicians, and potentially save procurement costs, which can instead be used for innovation.
But the NHS IT landscape is fragmented and competitive.
Cross-hospital imaging networks
Networking is a solution that makes sense to The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR). In 2014 we urged the NHS to support the creation of imaging networks.
Two years later, we published guidance to help radiology teams buy shared IT and create cross-hospital imaging networks.
We know they work, thanks to organic networks that have been established by motivated imaging leads. For example, in Devon, radiology trainees pool their expertise across three trusts to share out-of-hours scan reporting and improve resilience.
In Scotland, a regional network connecting hospital radiology IT across the south-east has meant radiologists are now reporting thousands of pooled X-ray and CT scans a month.
Last year, NHS England/Improvement (NHSE/I) backed us up. Radiology networks are now a core focus of the Long Term Plan, and a national strategy document for England was published in November.
The aim is that by 2023, radiology services will be grouped into 18 virtual networks, mapped to cover existing patient management pathways to ensure radiology scans are read as soon as possible, by the best local expert.
Mapping the networks
NHSE/I is now working on network implementation and IT guidance for local leaders, but the devil is most definitely in the detail. Correctly mapping the networks to local radiology capacity and expertise and set patient pathways will be an intricate task.
In addition to robust frameworks for structure and governance, networks will need clear regional leadership, as well as centralised help to source the crucial new IT solutions they will need in order to function.
The RCR is confident radiology networks will be a vital component of the future of NHS imaging provision, but they will need sustained political will, funding and practical support to ensure their success.