HC Deb 03 June 2003 vol 406 cc13-5
8. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

If he will make a statement on waiting times for MRI scans. [116531]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears)

A patient's clinical condition will determine how long they may have to wait for a scan. Emergency cases need to be seen immediately; other cases will be carried out as quickly as possible, depending on the clinical priority of all patients waiting to be scanned.

Dr. Cable

In my local district general hospital there are 800 sick people, all of whom have been waiting for more than eight months for a diagnostic scan. How much credibility does the Minister attach to the staff's explanation that although early diagnosis is crucial in avoiding life-threatening diseases, it is given low priority by health service administrators because such diagnosis means more patients, longer waiting lists and missed targets? Will she investigate this potentially serious distortion of clinical priorities?

Ms Blears

Early diagnosis and early treatment are top priorities for the Government, because it has been shown that they result in much better health outcomes for patients. That means increasing capacity, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the New Opportunities Fund has provided for 57 extra MRI scanners and cancer plan funding for 50 extra MRI scanners and 50 CT scanners—a vast improvement in the amount of modern equipment in our NHS, which will enable many more scans to be carried out. In 2001–02, the last year for which figures are available, an extra 73,000 scans were carried out in this country to secure early diagnosis and much better treatment. Capacity is improving, and the hon. Gentleman's local hospital was provided with a new CT scanner in April this year, which should go some way towards improving the local position.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I thank my hon. Friend for her advice and for outlining an interesting programme to the House. However, I know of patients in my constituency who are diagnosed early, but for whom it takes months rather than weeks to have the MRI scan. Is she satisfied that the equipment is being used to its full advantage, and if not, will she ensure that it is?

Ms Blears

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As well as making more equipment available, we also need trained and qualified staff to operate it, and we have increased the number of radiotherapists in training by 55 per cent. We are also working on programmes to enable assistant and advanced practitioners to carry out procedures that were previously carried out only by radiologists. A report published today on pilot programmes carried out across the country shows that radiographers can extend their skills and make a real contribution to shortening waiting times for patients, which is so important.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Ninety-five per cent. of patients attending hospitals for scans require diagnostic imaging services that are delivered by radiographers. However, last year the Audit Commission found that 250,000 patients had to wait up to five months for MRI scans, with an estimated national shortage of 5,000 radiographers. Since then, the Royal College of Radiologists believes that the position has deteriorated. Given that new recruits are simply not entering the profession, that too many radiologists are leaving early and that the Society of Radiographers has just become the first health service union to vote against "Agenda for Change", which would have meant a working year that was three weeks longer without extra pay, how on earth is the Minister going to meet her new recruitment targets by 2004 and bring down waiting times for scans without counting it as yet another top priority?

Ms Blears

The hon. Gentleman has a cheek, in view of the cuts in training places—not just for radiographers, but for GPs, doctors, nurses and a whole range of services—that took place under the Conservative Government. We are not only turning around those cuts but securing growth in the service. Radiotherapy training places are now up by 55 per cent. from 1997 levels. Furthermore, radiographers are welcoming the new ways in which they can extend their skills. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman listens to the information that I am providing, he might learn something. I urge him to read, in detail, the report on radiography published today, which shows that projects on skills mix have enabled advanced practitioners to interpret X-rays. They can now put the markers on the X-rays, which identify where breast lumps are, and other practitioners can carry out basic radiotherapy. It is not just about increasing capacity, but reforming and redesigning how the service works, using imagination and creativity, which the hon. Gentleman lacks.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Is not one way of improving services that require expensive machinery such as MRI scanners to extend the hours of operation, assuming that we can secure the staff to carry out those tasks?

Ms Blears

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a good, practical, down-to-earth and common-sense suggestion. The Audit Commission found that the majority of machines were being used for more than 10 hours a day, but we can do much more to achieve round-the-clock working. Through "Agenda for Change" and the changes to the pay system for consultants, we need to ensure that we have flexibility in the system so that we can make maximum use of our theatres, diagnostic equipment and the new investment that the Government are putting in to the national health service.

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