Wait times for diagnostic tests climb in Manitoba after pandemic prompted spring shutdown

By | July 30, 2020

The wait times for diagnostic tests like mammograms, MRIs and CAT scans are ballooning across Manitoba in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the province’s latest wait time reports.

Shannon Pratt has been waiting for a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scan for the last six months from the Brandon Regional Health Centre.

She has a rare brain condition called cavernous malformations, in which abnormal blood vessels grow in the brain, potentially causing deadly hemorrhages and seizures.

She relies on an annual MRI to monitor whether the vessels are growing larger or bleeds are occurring, which tells her doctor whether there is anything they should be concerned about or if she needs surgery. 

“Typically, it doesn’t take very long to get the paperwork to set the date. I understand it’s usually about a four-month wait [for the MRI], but I never got nothing. Months went on. And then COVID hit,” she said.

Without the scan, she doesn’t know her current condition.

“Have they grown? Have I gotten more? Is there something else?”

Non-urgent tests cancelled in March

The latest provincial figures show the average wait time for non-urgent MRIs and ultrasounds has doubled, from just over three months in January to over six months as of May. 

The province spent years trying to get a handle on a growing wait list for these procedures by hiring new technologists, bringing in new equipment and funnelling millions of dollars in investments.

But the most recent data shows any gains made over the last couple of years were lost following a quasi-shutdown on March 24 that cancelled all non-urgent procedures and tests, in order to free up hospital capacity for a potential surge of COVID-19 cases.

The province said it was restarting non-essential procedures in late April.

Numbers obtained from Shared Health also show a marked increase in the wait for diagnostic mammograms in the Prairie Mountain Health region, where patients are waiting up to four months, and in the Northern Health region, where patients are waiting almost two months for a test they used to get in weeks.

Shannon Pratt has been waiting since February for the annual MRI scan she relies on to make sure her rare brain condition hasn’t worsened. (Submitted by Shannon Pratt)

Pratt’s neurologist put in a request for an MRI in Brandon on Feb. 14. It took until July 16 — after the CBC contacted Shared Health and shared her information — for Pratt to get a letter saying an appointment was booked for Sept. 15, seven months after her neurologist sent in the first referral.

While she understands the impact of the pandemic, the wait has added stress to her life.

“We’re now in a different time, but people’s health is important. And anxiety plays a big factor in health as well,” she said.

“People are sitting and waiting.”

Some testing not at full capacity 

At the Dauphin Regional Health Centre, the wait is currently listed at over a year for an ultrasound, compared to three months in January.

Meanwhile, the wait for computerized axial tomography, or CAT, scans has quadrupled — with the provincial average wait time growing to almost six months.

During the height of the coronavirus shutdown this spring, diagnostics were only operating at about 45 per cent of capacity, according to a spokesperson for Shared Health.

While available CT scanners are now working at 104 per cent of capacity, MRI and ultrasounds are still unable to reach maximum capacity due to COVID-19 safety measures, health officials said.

The Shared Health spokesperson attributed the longer wait times in Dauphin and Brandon to staffing shortages, but added the positions have been filled. A new CT scanner is also expected to become operational in Brandon in the next week, reducing wait times.

All provinces seeing delays: cardiologist

What is happening in Manitoba is happening across the country, says Ontario cardiologist Dr. Chris Simpson, a former president of the Canadian Medical Association and an expert on medical wait time benchmarks.

Even with more procedures over the summer, hospitals aren’t working at maximum capacity, and extra cleaning measures mean they are able to see fewer patients each day, he said.

“It’s pretty scary. And for a lot of things, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever catch up,” Simpson said. 

To address the backlog, hospitals need to be working at a capacity of 140 per cent, he said — but with the ongoing presence of coronavirus, it is impossible to even work at 100 per cent.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals represents the bulk of technologists responsible for these sorts of scans. 

The union’s president, Bob Moroz, attributes added delays to lack of staff.

“We continue in a lot of cases to be very, very short staffed or running with the absolute bare minimum sort of staffing,” Moroz said. 

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