Huge pressure to fill cancer hub

editorial image

Mark Durkan is worried a scarcity of radiologists, which helped precipitate the disastrous 18,500 X-rays backlog at Altnagelvin in 2009/10 may put pressure on health service managers trying to sustainably staff the new £50m cancer unit at Altnagelvin.

“A new radiotherapy unit has opened in a hospital in my constituency, and there will be huge pressure on it to employ and sustain radiologists for the future,” he told MPs at Westminster.

He made the comments during a debate on proposals to axe a National Health Service (NHS) student bursary, which is available for trainee nurses in England.

Mr Durkan acknowledged that whilst the NHS bursary scheme applies to England only, some of his constituents, who could potentially return home to serve as nurses in the Londonderry area, are also amongst its beneficiaries.

“As a Northern Ireland MP,” he said, “I am conscious that this debate is about the bursary scheme for the NHS in England. Of course, the scheme recruits students from Northern Ireland who are undertaking courses in England, and as a devolved Administration we also have our own variant of the scheme.”

He alluded to the acute problem of attracting adequate numbers of health service staff to come and live and work in the peripheral North West.

Top health officials, civil servants and auditors have all acknowledged the unique difficulty the West has in attracting enough permanent consultants and nurses to come and work here.

At the end of last year, for example, Western Trust boss Elaine Way said foreign doctors were being especially recruited to help reduce the rising cost of expensive locums, which has risen to £12m this financial year, and is crippling the health authority’s attempts to break even.

Not filling posts, can be and has been a public safety issue.

In 2011 a top Harley Street doctor told Western Trust chiefs there should have been ten more radiologists working in the out-dated medical imaging department at Altnagelvin than the seven permanent staff left struggling with a “disastrous” 18,500 X-ray backlog - as Altnagelvin’s leading radiologist described it - in 2010.

Now Mr Durkan has raised the staffing issues on the floor of the House of Commons.

“Health service employers in Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, constantly talk about workforce problems and the huge pressure to fill places and keep services running,” he told colleagues.

Late last year Dr Richard Pengelly an accountant by profession and the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health here a new model of health care in Northern Ireland may be needed to help ameliorate the Western Trust’s chronic and costly dependance on expensive locum doctors.