Fewer scans took place because of Covid pandemic

stock image showing medical person and patient

Stock image of patient and medical professional. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thousands of people in Essex missed out on potentially life-saving scans when non-Covid NHS services ground to a halt during the pandemic.

Analysis of official figures by the BBC Shared Data Unit has found that at least 136,970 fewer diagnostic imaging scans were carried out across the area between April and September this year, compared to the same period in 2019.

However, as figures are only available for two of the five NHS trusts in Essex and exclude private hospitals, the true number of people missing out on scans is likely far higher.

Across NHS trusts in the area that had data available, 263,325 scans were performed in the first six months of the pandemic – a drop of 34 percent from the 400,295 that took place the year before.

Separate figures on waiting times also reveal wide variation in how hospitals are rebuilding capacity.


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At The Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, 31 percent of patients on the waiting list for a scan had been waiting more than six weeks as of October – up from one percent at the same time last year.

That compares to 12 percent of patients left waiting more than six weeks in East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, although that was also up from zero.

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Across the two trusts – which were the only ones in Essex that had data available – it means that more than one in five patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a scan (21 percent), which was up from zero last October.

However, that is lower than the national average of 29 percent of patients across England (up from three percent).

While the NHS and professional bodies say hospitals were forced to cancel elective appointments to limit patients in wards, the pandemic has exposed flaws in the health service’s ability to diagnose serious conditions early, experts say.

Dr William Ramsden, vice president of the clinical radiology faculty for the Royal College of Radiologists, and Dr Nick Screaton, vice president of the British Institute of Radiologists, have both said a historical lack of staff as well as a shortage in CT and MRI scanners has been “exacerbated” by Covid-19.

Jodie Moffatt, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “We are very concerned about the impact the virus will have on cancer. The length of time people are waiting for a scan will be having a negative impact on their diagnosis.

“Those patients could be diagnosed with a more aggressive, later stage cancer. That will limit the treatment options available to them also.

“There is a cohort of patients out there that have not been diagnosed yet – and who knows what state they will be in when they are.”

A spokesman for NHS England said: “Despite rapidly rising Covid hospitalisations, CT scans are now back to the same levels as last year, while MRI scans are back up to 88 percent compared to last October and the NHS has bolstered its diagnostic capacity by securing a deal with the independent sector to provide 34 mobile CT scanners across the country.

“At the height of the first wave, some people chose to postpone care, but since then hospital admissions have rebounded, non-urgent treatment has increased by 300 percent between April and September and GP appointments are now operating at well above usual levels, while the NHS message to the public remains the same – come forward and get the care you need.”

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