A report this month from the Royal College of Pathologists has raised urgent questions over staffing levels in NHS histopathology departments across the country. https://www.rcpath.org/discover-pathology/news/college-report-finds-severe-staff-shortages-across-services-vital-to-cancer-diagnosis.html

The report details that only 3% of histopathology departments currently have sufficient staffing levels to meet the clinical demand. This of course means that a staggering number of histopathology departments are struggling to cope with ever increasing workloads.

Histopathology services are vital in diagnosing diseases such as breast cancer. Samples of tissue or cells taken from a patient are analysed to identify whether they show signs of the disease and, should that be the case, the results will influence the initial stages of treatment for that patient.

The Royal College of Pathologists carried out a survey of histopathology departments across the UK in 2017. The results of that survey show that of the 103 departments which responded, 50% were having to use locums to cope with the workload and 45% were outsourcing work. This contributed to outsourcing and locum costs of £27 million across the NHS in 2017.

Delays in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer could have a devastating impact for patients and in some cases may affect their chance of survival. The President of the Royal College of Pathologists, Professor Jo Martin stated:

“The cost of staff shortages across histopathology departments is high for both patients and for our health services. For patients, it means worrying delays in diagnosis and treatment.”

New NHS screening programmes and a lack of funding for new staff has contributed to the staff shortages. The report found that a quarter of all histopathologists are aged 55 or over meaning that the staffing crisis will worsen as they start to retire over the next few years. The Royal College of Pathologists made several recommendations to deal with the crisis including financial incentives for histopathology trainees, better IT systems to enable staff to work more efficiently and a new role of advanced clinical practitioners to work alongside qualified histopathologists and reduce their workload.

The NHS says that it is working to improve staffing levels but with current waiting times following a referral for suspected cancer also at their worst level for many years, the impact on patient safety will be significant unless urgent steps are taken to address the staffing crisis.