Wait times for a non-emgergency MRI scan in northern B.C. are now higher than they were when the region shared a magnetic resonance imaging unit with Interior Health a decade ago.
Although the sole MRI operated by Northern Health can scan up to 5,200 patients per year in Prince George, the waiting list can reach as high as 6,000 to 7,000 people. That leaves some patients waiting up to 455 days to have their scan now, compared with a nine- to 12-month wait in 2003 when Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna shared a mobile unit.
Three years after the unit was installed, the wait time for an MRI in the north was only six weeks, according to a Citizen story from 2006.
Northern Health spokesman Steve Raper said there are many variables when it comes to how long someone will wait and he called the 455 days a "worst-case scenario."
In the past year alone, Northern Health injected an additional $400,000 into staffing the current unit to keep it running longer hours, but even with that additional supply wait lists are growing.
The health authority is currently looking for solutions and Raper expects Northern Health will make an announcement in the coming months. Among the options possibly on the table are getting a mobile unit, which could be shared with another health authority or adding another permanent MRI in the region.
"The reality is the wait lists are long despite the fact we're doing more MRIs than ever," he said.
As with other aspects of the healthcare system, patients with urgent conditions are prioritized and are seen much sooner than the 455 days. Raper said some patients experience long delays when they re-book or miss appointments.
Unlike for some surgical procedures there are no recognized provincial targets or federal benchmarks for diagnostic imaging like MRIs and CT scans, but the Vancouver Island Health Authority aims to have 50 per cent of its routine MRIs completed within 91 days.
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), 90 per cent of patients in Alberta have their MRI competed within 269 days. Meanwhile, in Manitoba the 90 per cent of patients had the scan within 99 days and in Ontario the wait was only 86 days. Nova Scotia had a 148-day wait 90 per cent of the time and Prince Edward Island's wait was 143 days.
Data was not available for other provinces, including B.C.
When the permanent unit was installed in Prince George 10 years ago, the community raised $1 million of the $2.5 million capital investment at the time through the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation.
Raper was unable to put a dollar figure for what it would cost to purchase and operate an additional unit in 2013.
"It is on our list of things that we need to do, we know we need to do it and we're working on some solutions," he said.
One of the reasons the wait lists have increased so dramatically in recent years is because doctors are prescribing the scans much more often. CIHI reported that between 2004 and 2007 the number of MRIs and CT scans in B.C. increased by over 50 per cent.
The rise in demand prompted a study released earlier this year in the B.C. Medical Journal looking at how the procedure is used. An independent company randomly analyzed 2,000 MRI requisitions from 2011 to 2012 to see if they were prescribed appropriately.
"The study results indicate that physicians in B.C. appear to be adhering to clinical guidelines when ordering CT scans and MRI examinations, with only two per cent of orders being deemed 'inappropriate,' " the study found.
For MRI scans specifically, only one per cent were deemed inappropriate, but the study also classified 54 per cent as indeterminate due to a lack of clinical data input and 26 per cent as not validated because "the available (or enabled) clinical content does not cover the described clinical condition."
That left only 17 per cent of requisitions as appropriate and two per cent deemed moderate.
The study didn't breakdown MRI usage by health authority.
For his part, Raper didn't want to speculate on how appropriate the MRI requests are from doctors in northern B.C.
"I wouldn't be the one to hazard to second guess physicians or specialists on whether that's necessary or not necessary," he said. "They're the experts, we rely on them to make the judgments that they make and we need to ensure that we have the systems in place to meet those judgments and needs."