Undiagnosed cancer may be among backlog of 55,000 hospital scans

The health department is 'throwing everything' into fixing the problem, which could take as long as three months.

Thousands of Queenslanders could have serious health conditions, including cancer, without realising as almost 55,000 radiology scans remain unchecked at one of the state’s busiest hospitals.

Gold Coast University Hospital, which has one of Queensland's busiest emergency departments, is faced with a mammoth backlog of medical imagining scans, leaving patients in the dark.

According to Queensland Health, it could take as long as two to three months to clear, it was revealed on Thursday. The backlog of scans has accumulated over about 18 months.

Gold Coast University Hospital
Gold Coast University Hospital has a backlog of almost 55,000 radiology scans. Source: Google Images

Staff shortages and higher demand to blame

Gold Coast Health chief executive Ron Calvert said staff shortages were mostly to blame as well as higher demand for medical imaging across the state.

A change to the National Health Reform Agreement caused "six-figure" pay cuts for radiologists employed in public hospitals forcing many into the private sector, he said. Speaking at a press conference on Thursday morning, Mr Calvert said the "remuneration in the private sector is so lucrative" he's not surprised many are "tempted to take that route", but it's caused Gold Coast University Hospital to lose the equivalent of eight full-time radiologists.

"We definitely have a capacity shortfall," Mr Calvert said, saying the hospital is currently operating with five less than needed. "At one point we were facing the prospect of losing nearly all our radiologists."

"There's also been an explosion in demand for imaging services," he said, but the reason for that is "unknown".

45 per cent increase in radiology demand

The hospital delivers 150,000 X-rays in any one year, but in the last two years, that number has increased by 45 per cent — the biggest increase the hospital has ever seen. Mr Calvert said they're doing "everything we can" to fix the issue but said there's a "global shortage of healthcare professionals".

Chest and lung x-ray.
Scans are being offloaded to the private sector to be checked, which could take as much as three months to sort through. Source: Getty

Maria Boulton, President of the Australian Medical Association Queensland, agreed staff shortages are a problem. "When you look at a busy radiology department in a busy hospital, that will include nurses, radiographers, radiologists," she told ABC Radio Brisbane.

"The [doctors] I have spoken with feel quite disenfranchised. They feel very upset for their patients that they can't provide the care that they want to provide."

Fears major health problems have gone missed

Several whistleblowers told Courier Mail they're worried over the unreported scans leading to legal action. "There is the constant worry about how many tumours or serious issues are being missed or delayed,” one staff member told the publication.

Dr Boulton said there's "no doubt" people working in the hospital are doing the best they can. "But if you're under-resourced, underfunded and understaffed, it's very hard to keep up when you're working in a busy environment," she said.

She said it's "hard to say" if any serious problems have been missed or undiagnosed. However, Kellie Wren, Gold Coast Health executive director of medical services and clinical governance, said the hospital was prioritising the most important scans and the risk to patients was "exceedingly small".

What's being done to fix hospital backlog?

The backlog of scans has been offloaded to the private sector to ensure they're looked at quickly. Health Minister Shannon Fentiman said the heath service is “throwing everything” it can at the issue to try and fix it.

She said the backlog is "unacceptable" and she's not aware of any other hospital facing the same issue.

A Queensland Health spokesperson told The Courier Mail it had a number of initiatives in place to attract more medical staff, including a recruitment drive targeting interstate and overseas specialists. There are also financial incentives to entice specialists to move to Queensland to work.

"We strongly support any measures that will reduce the barriers for international clinicians to relocate to Australia,” they said.

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