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Edmonton doctors say long wait times for MRI and CT scans are getting worse

Health Matters: Feb. 20
WATCH ABOVE (Feb. 20): In Thursday's edition of Health Matters, Su-Ling Goh tells us about how Edmonton doctors are once again raising concerns about long wait times for MRIs and CT scans and also tells us about a made-in-Edmonton invention to treat heart attacks.

Edmonton doctors are again sounding the alarm about long wait times for MRI and CT scans. They say delays are getting worse. At one local hospital, they see patients waiting over a year.

“How much would you like it if I would tell you, ‘Look, you may have a cancer, but I can’t give you a diagnosis for a year?’ It’s pretty stressful, I would say,” said Dr. Ernie Schuster, president of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association.

READ MORE: Some Edmonton-area patients are waiting 7-9 months for CT scans

According to the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, the average wait for an MRI at the University of Alberta Hospital is now 375 days.

For a CT scan at the Leduc Hospital, the wait is 275 days, the association says.

READ MORE: CT scanner now operational at Leduc Community Hospital

Members say doctors have resorted to asking patients to pay out of pocket for private scans, which they say can cost between $375 and $800.

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“I just tell them, right now, right up front, I say: ‘Can you pay for this? Because I really need this soon.’

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“And if you’re lucky enough and you’ve got a patient who can pay, fine, we can move on. But if the patient cannot pay, then we have a real problem,” Schuster said.

“Some doctors we know have actually paid for their own patients to get it done privately because they just needed to move on with this.”

Schuster says MRI and CT scans are needed to diagnose someone with cancer, MS, or other serious health issues.

WATCH BELOW (Oct. 30, 2019): More Albertans are voicing concerns about wait times for CT scans in the Edmonton area. Su-Ling Goh reports.

Edmontonians voice concern about wait times for CT scans
Edmontonians voice concern about wait times for CT scans

“The bigger problem is that if you don’t need to go to the emergency because it’s not emergent but it’s urgent — and by definition, we’re talking about something that should be done within 30 days, and everybody sort of agrees on that benchmark — these 30 days now have ballooned, in many cases, to over a year.”

READ MORE: Patients who need urgent CT scans waiting 2-3 months, some Edmonton doctors say

He describes the delays as both costly and dangerous.

“Costly because of delayed diagnosis, and dangerous because patients actually may die if they were treatable at an earlier date.

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“That by itself is a cost burden to the system because if you’re sicker, then you have to start a much advanced level of things. If it’s a cancer, or the patient may die because it’s not caught early enough.”

READ MORE: Albertans waited 6.5 months for medically necessary treatment in 2018: report

The EZMSA has written letters to express its concerns to Alberta Health Services, the provincial government and the federal government.

The group describes itself as “the formal voice of advocacy for practitioners in Edmonton Zone.” Its members include practitioners, medical staff at hospitals, continuing care facilities, Primary Care Networks and non-PCN-based community physicians, community based specialists, dentists and oral surgeons.

READ MORE: Alberta Election Fact Check: Did surgery wait times increase under NDP?

Dr. Neil Pandya, who specializes in diseases of the brain, spinal cord and nerves, said he has noticed wait times for diagnostic imaging getting longer over the past eight months.

“Scans that I, as a specialist, deem neurologically urgent are being scheduled on average six to eight months later. I can only imagine how distressing this is for a patient, knowing that something is potentially damaging their brain or spinal cord but not being able to find out what this is for at least half a year.”

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Pandya said these scans can be expedited by sending the patient to emergency, but that clogs up emergency departments, leading to longer wait times for emergency patients.

Alberta radiologists also told Global News that the wait for Level 1 “urgent” exams in the Edmonton Zone has gone from two weeks to seven weeks since the summer.

WATCH BELOW (Oct. 17, 2019): According to Alberta Health, the Edmonton-area wait time for a CT scan is the same as the provincial average, but patients tell Global News they’re having to wait until next spring, or even summer. Su-Ling Goh reports.

Edmonton-area patients say they have to wait until spring for CT scan
Edmonton-area patients say they have to wait until spring for CT scan

In a statement, AHS said it is very concerned with increasing wait times for CT and MRI scans, and is “taking immediate and longer-term steps to improve access to these services.”

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said waits for patients in hospitals or ERs are stable — patients are being seen within hours, but admits waits for outpatients being referred for CT scans or MRIs are “too long.”

He said AHS is working with doctors so that priority is given to urgent cases and is also developing an action plan to reduce wait times with Alberta Health.

“Increasing wait times are not due to any policy change or government direction regarding diagnostic imaging, nor has there been a change in the budgeted volumes of CT scans performed provincially,” Williamson added.

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Steve Buick, the press secretary for Alberta’s health minister, issued a statement to Global News about the concerns on Friday night. You can read the statement in its entirety below:

Albertans do not need to pay privately for CT scans to have their cancer diagnosed and treated. That is not how we treat cancer in Alberta and it’s completely unacceptable. Minister Shandro has directed AHS to take action to address this immediately by adding additional scans for cancers as soon as possible.

The NDP are distorting the numbers in their press release. The numbers cherry-picked by the NDP are not the average. It’s clear that the numbers the NDP misleadingly picked are among the individual longest wait times, which is a small segment of those waiting.

It’s true, CT and MRI wait times have increased in the past five years. The NDP are expecting government to fix this in one year when they failed to it fix in four. If a patient is in an emergency department and needs an urgent scan, they are able to get one quickly. If a patient is in hospital, they are able to get a scan within 24 hours.

AHS is not advising patients who need an urgent scan to purchase one privately. We encourage patients to work with their physician, in order to get a scan as quickly as possible. Demand for CT scans is increasing by five per cent (and MRIs by 3.5 per cent) annually, to meet this demand now and in the future, it is imperative that action is taken now to improve access.

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