PRESSURE on Great Western Hospital’s radiology department has increased at least threefold over the past decade.

But department chief Dr Andy Beale says his busy team has seen its budget barely double.

The experienced consultant, who also acts as treasurer for the Royal College of Radiologists, called on the government to invest more cash in radiology departments across the country.

He told the Swindon Advertiser: “Across the country, there is a shortage of radiologists. We are about 1,000 consultant radiologists short and seven per cent of all jobs remain vacant for a year.

“Why is that happening? Because the government is not giving us enough money to train radiologists through the system.

“We’ve got the least radiologists per head of population of any country in Europe. We’re 27th out of 27. You compare that to A&E, where they’re seventh. We always think we’ve got no GPs in this country and they’re something like sixth or seventh in the tables.”

Radiology departments have seen a massive growth in demand. The specialist doctors and staff are increasingly taking on procedures like colon scans and heart CT scans that were once the preserve of other departments.

The number of CT scans ordered in NHS hospitals in England alone hit around five million last year, up from a million two-and-a-half decades earlier.

“It’s been a slow change,” said Dr Beale. “This increased demand has gone up out of proportion to the number of radiologist being appointed and it’s been going on for 20 years.

“Other specialities like gynaecology or dermatology, their workload has not gone up the same as radiology. If you come to hospital now everybody expects a scan. Everybody expects an X-ray.”

“That is the problem now, there’s an expectation that when you come to hospital you are going to have a scan and that will almost certainly involve radiology.”

Dr Beale was speaking after a challenging few months for his department, which has seen waiting times spiral due to staff shortages and demands from NHS chiefs to prioritise cancer scan patients over others.

In June, the latest month for which official figures are available, 502 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a CT scan and 625 patients for an ultrasound.

Dr Beale said he felt the impact on cardiac CT scan patients particularly hard: “It was terrible, we hated it. I set up the cardiac CT service at Great Western Hospital. It was my baby. It’s a nationally recognised service and a really proud feather in our cap.

“Yet six months ago the waiting lists for a cardiac was three months rather than two weeks. Every time I wanted to book a cardiac patient someone said we can’t.”

Now, the doctor is running evening and weekend clinics to try and get the backlog down. Newly appointed radiology doctors and radiographers are beginning to take up posts and, while the department is still understaffed, bosses say it will tackle waiting times.

'That scanner's our Aston Martin'

GREAT Western Hospital’s top radiologist compares his department’s multi-million pound kit to cars.

A £900,000 CT scanner is a Ford Escort, the reliable workhorse of the department. The kit, which looks like a giant white polo mint sat in a surprisingly fresh-smelling hospital room, is used for everything from checking for squeezed arteries to making sure a doctor is sticking a needle into the right place.

Next door is its posher sibling. More modern, more expensive and with better computer screens, Dr Beale compares it to an Aston Martin. Other re-conditioned scanners, hidden away and covered in colourful children’s stickers, are described as the department’s Ford Ka-equivalents – albeit blessed with a souped-up engine.

Dr Beale, a consultant radiologist for two decades, has been working in Swindon hospitals since the days of PMH.

He’s spent his career in the town, seeing swelling obesity rates and falling smoking figures played out on the computer screens of his x-rays, CT scans and MRI machines.

Under his tutelage, GWH’s radiologists won awards and he set the department up as one of the region’s first cardiac CT scan centres. GWH is one of a handful of NHS hospitals using the HeartFlow programme, which gives doctors a precise idea of blood flow in vessels around the body, helping them understand the best ways to fix blocked arteries and the like.

But he's also seen a massive growth in demand from both patients and his fellow doctors.

He said: “If you’re a patient when you come in you will get fantastic treatment, best reporting and you’re coming to the department of the year – it was and we think we still are.

“We’re better than many other places. The whole country’s got challenges. Go from Swindon to Milton Keynes, you’ll have the same issues. It doesn’t mean we like it.”