More MS news articles for February 2001

Rock to Ontario: Fix MRI crisis

'Do the right thing & put the MRIs where they are needed'; Tells province to spend the $400M the government gave it to buy new equipment

Sharon Kirkey
The Ottawa Citizen

Health Minister Alan Rock has called on Ontario to "do the right thing" and spend some of the $400 million in new federal money for medical equipment on MRIs.

In the House of Commons yesterday, Mr. Rock referred to MRI waiting lists in Ottawa as "troubling," and called on the Ontario government to "put the MRIs where they are needed" to eliminate "undue" waiting lists.

A federal-provincial agreement on health in September included $1 billion for the provinces to buy new equipment. Ontario's share is almost $400 million.

"We expect the government of Ontario, now that we have furnished the tools, to do the job," Mr. Rock said.

More than 7,000 people are waiting seven months and longer for all but emergency or urgent MRIs at the Ottawa Hospital. The massive backlog has led the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario to ask the province for money to increase the number of hours its MRI machine operates so it can scan more adult patients.

CHEO now operates its scanner 60 hours a week. Twenty hours are set aside for adults. The hospital is asking Ontario for an extra $248,000 to operate its MRI unit 100 hours a week -- with 60 of those hours for adult scans.

Last week, the Ottawa Hospital said it will start operating its two machines 24 hours a day if the waiting list doesn't shrink by April.

Across Ontario, the waiting list for an MRI is growing by almost 12,000 patients a year, according to a confidential report prepared for the government and obtained by the Citizen this week.

Mr. Rock said yesterday that many provinces have already reported they plan to use their portion of the fund to purchase machines such as MRIs.

"We have not heard yet from Ontario but I, too, have read the troubling reports of the waiting lists in Ontario," he said.

It was the second time in as many days the health minister was asked about MRI waiting lists Ottawa.

On Thursday, Nepean-Carleton MP David Pratt said a shortage of the "vital" machines means Ottawa residents are waiting up to a year for a non-urgent test, but the government of Ontario "seems completely unconcerned about the inequitable distribution of MRIs across the province."

The Ontario Radiological Society says Ottawa has the worst access of any major city in the province to the high-tech machines.

Toronto has 10 MRI scanners for adult patients and is scheduled to get two more by the end of this year. The district of Hamilton-Wentworth, which has one MRI, has ministry approval for four more.

Magnetic resonance imaging has become one of the most important diagnostic tools. In many cases it is considered the definitive test.

But in Ottawa, some doctors have grown so frustrated with the delay for a non-emergency MRI that they're taking patients off the waiting list and sending them for more invasive, often more painful, but often less precise tests.

Some patients are being admitted to hospital just so they can get faster access to the test.

Cancer patients who need an MRI to see if their disease has responded to treatment are waiting months for a follow-up scan. Waiting times can depend more on whether a patient's insurance company will pay for the test, not on medical need.

The Ontario Radiological Society says Ontario needs at least 80 scanners just to meet current demand, and demand is expected to soar as the population ages and MRI increasingly becomes the standard tool to diagnose a growing number of illnesses.

The radiologists have told the province that Ottawa needs five scanners for adults -- three more than the city has now.

But even if city hospitals were to get money today for new scanners, it would take at least a year to get them up and running.

CHEO says it could do an extra 3,000 adult scans over the next year if the province provides the extra money.

But it wants to limit MRI tests to areas where staff have a "high degree of knowledge," said the hospital's chief financial officer Randy Reid. That means mostly people needing scans of knees, hips, shoulders and other joints, and neurological patients, such as those awaiting an MRI to confirm or rule out a suspected diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

The hospital doesn't feel comfortable accepting cancer patients who need an MRI to determine how they're responding to radiation or chemotherapy, "because our oncologists wouldn't be the ones taking care of them," Mr. Reid said.

"But we're offering to extend our hours to more or less mirror the Ottawa Hospital's hours." Two MRI machines at the Civic and General sites are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, to deal with the waiting list.

Melanie Hicks has been waiting "14 months and counting" for an MRI to see whether she has multiple sclerosis. She also needs an MRI for a back problem.

She's been waiting since she began experiencing pain, cold sensations and weakness on her right side. "And I still don't even have an appointment."

The Ottawa mother, who has two young children, said one doctor recently suggested she consider going to a private MRI clinic in Hull that opened in December.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health says no decision will be made about money for MRIs until government policy on MRI services is reviewed.

A consulting firm has just submitted its final report to the province on MRI waiting lists. The group's draft report showed that demand will soon outstrip the ministry's planned boost in the number of machines. There are 36 machines in operation today; by the end of next year there will be 42.