Tucked away out of public view at most hospitals is a nuclear medicine laboratory where radioactive materials are kept safely in thick lead containers. Dressed in bright white overalls, face masks and protective gloves and working behind lead glass with specialised tools, the technologists that turn these dangerous materials into diagnostic and therapeutic drugs for a startling array of conditions are a little known but vital part of the NHS.
Despite the pressures facing the NHS, its core task of delivering universal healthcare that is free at the point of use remains thankfully unchanged as the service enters its eighth decade. While the same cannot be said for nuclear medicine, which continues to expand into new areas of treatment, it too is suffering from the same relentless Tory attacks that are assailing the rest of the NHS.
“From new borns to the elderly, we use nuclear medicine to inject tracers into people and take images. You name it and we can take a picture of it: bone scans, kidney scans, brain scans, scans for surgery, Alzheimer’s scan, scans for heart disease. There has been a huge increase in the potential of the technology,” explained nuclear medicine technologist and Unite health chair for the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, David Donohue.
“But there’s been massive problems with staff over the last few years. There’s a national shortage of nuclear medicine technologists, which could be made worse when we leave the EU. In the past we had comprehensive training schemes that were bursary based. But the government put an end to NHS bursaries across the board, so now people have to pay to thousands to train. It’s made going into the profession very unattractive.”
A lack of staff – including at one hospital in the north east that has a just a single technologist when it is meant to have five – means that the nuclear medicine technologists are working much harder to deliver services. Nuclear medicine staff are coming in early, working through breaks and leaving late.
Adding to the pressure, Donohue said, is that on top of the now ended pay freeze, nuclear medicine departments were forced to undergo restructuring, meaning many technologists dropped a pay grade.
There are around 2,000 nuclear medicine technologists in the NHS, undertaking more than 500,000 procedures a year. The service faces an array of challenges – mostly caused by the government’s mismanagement. One of the most pressing is Brexit, which means the UK will no longer be part of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).
Donohue said, “A lot of our radioactive materials come from abroad and we’re reliant on Euratom for their transport. If the Brexit talks collapse and there’s no transitional agreement or replacement for Euratom, then we will potentially lose our access to radioactive materials.
“Without the legislative framework of Euratom, or a working alternative, we won’t be able to import radioactive material into this country. That could prevent patients accessing vital diagnostic tests and other medical treatments, such as those for cancer, involving radioactive materials. People in my sector are just wondering ‘what an earth is going to happen?’”
‘Slash, trash and privatise’
Another issue is the government’s controversial Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), which will usher in £22bn worth of cuts to the NHS. Donohue, who came up with the name for Unite’s “Slash, Trash and Privatise” campaign, said STPs contain provisions to allow even more NHS services to be farmed out to private firms. With nuclear medicine services such as PET CT scans already being contracted out to the private sector, the danger that “NHS expertise won’t be built up in those areas” will only increase under the STP programme.
Donohue said, “At the end of the day, we want to see proper NHS investment in nuclear medicine staff and technology. Nuclear medicine is an incredibly important area for healthcare and it needs to be treated as such.
“Unfortunately when you look at things that are standard in health services in other countries, such as the use of combined gamma cameras and CT scanners – which are are very, very useful for diagnosis and research – Britain is lagging behind.”
He added, “I’m proud of what we as nuclear medicine technologists do and I’ve seen the technology develop and patients outcomes get better during my career. Unfortunately nuclear medicine, like every other area of the NHS, is suffering under the Tories. We need to fight to make sure that the NHS is returned to health and lives long into the future.”