NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE/I) have published a strategy to create 18 radiology networks across England over the next four years.
The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) supports the overarching strategy but warns that networks alone will not resolve shortages across the NHS imaging workforce.
A handful of radiology networks have already been created across England – and the wider-UK – by innovative trusts and radiology teams.
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The RCR has long-promoted the model, and in 2016 produced practical IT guidance for trusts interested in networking1.
Imaging networks are now a focus of the NHSE Long Term Plan2, which commits to the national establishment of networks by 2023 so that scan images can be accessed by clinicians "regardless of geography", and to create big datasets for use in health research.
The NHSE/I strategy3, released yesterday, outlines the case for imaging networks and the key considerations for local network leaders as the systems develop.
It recommends the initial creation of 24 networks – to be consolidated into 18 networks by 2023 – but does not describe their composition, as each will need to be a flexible work-in-progress, incorporating complex local service overlaps and integration.
NHSE/I have committed to providing operational toolkits and templates as part of implementation guidance expected in early 2020, as well as general support and future help with IT procurement.
RCR Vice President for Clinical Radiology Dr Caroline Rubin said:
"The strategy does an excellent job of setting the scene for radiology networks against the demands, aspirations and operational direction of the health service.
"We know the lack of image-sharing across hospitals is leading to reporting backlogs and delays and harm to patients4. A handful of pioneering networks that grew organically have shown it can be done, and the need for more networking is clear.
"Networks will support out-of-hours scan reporting and faster access to specialist opinion – as well as helping departments clear backlogs and cope when they are short-staffed because of leave and illness.
"Imaging networks will take shape over time and be locally-led, but they must also have ongoing centralised oversight, resourcing and support. The proposed planning toolkit and local engagement from NHS agencies are extremely welcome, and their help with IT specifications and procurement will be absolutely key.
"We endorse the NHSE/I phased approach and look forward to working with them, alongside local clinical leads, to support the networks as they develop, helping to nurture the collaborative culture that is vital to their success.
"They are an obvious and crucial part of the future of hospital imaging but are not the perfect solution to understaffed services – and we are grateful the national strategy recognises the need to address workforce issues.
"Networks will not be enough to sustain NHS imaging without more investment in radiologists, radiographers and other imaging staff. The radiologist workforce alone is on course for a 31 per cent shortfall by 20235 – and the England-wide go-live of imaging networks will not change that."