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CT scanner disruptions grow as B.C. medical imaging hangs by a thread

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A growing number of service disruptions to CT scanning service in the Lower Mainland has British Columbia’s radiation technologists sounding the alarm as the health authority downplays the situation.

Twice this month, Surrey Memorial Hospital hasn’t had any staff to operate their CT scanner overnight on weekends and Langley Memorial had bare-bones CT service Tuesday, for the second day in a row. Patients in need of scanning for strokes or traumatic injuries, for example, would be diverted to nearby hospitals.

“We're starting to see shutdowns or service disruptions in some of the major centres, and I just don't think their voices are raised enough and we're a bit unseen,” said Sarah Erdelyi, Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists manager for B.C. “It's very hectic and they're under a lot of pressure, under a lot of strain.”

CTV News has heard from multiple CT technologists from hospitals throughout Fraser Health expressing frustration that their workloads have multiplied in recent years, without big pay increases or recognition of the non-stop churn of work and tremendous patient loads they now have to manage while paying attention to life-saving details.

Fraser Health insists the temporary service disruptions are rare and that “coordination between our regional network of sites and services enables us to ensure every person presenting to one of our hospitals receives the care they need, including those who require an emergency scan.” 

An ongoing issue

Earlier this month, Surrey Memorial’s acting medical director said the last CT service outage they’d had was in November and acknowledged they were reliant on overtime and canclled days off to maintain service due to the chronic staff shortage.

“Radiographers, radiologists, all of the techs that do all this work, it is a lot and they pull off almost a miracle every day, just with the number of investigations that they manage to do,” said Dr. Marietta Van Den Berg, earlier this month.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has often boasted of the skyrocketing rates of medical imaging, even though doctors have warned that the backlog for critical scans continues to grow. 

An annual progress report published by the province in 2022 found CT exams had grown by 30 per cent while MRI exams had increased 69 per cent since Dix became minister in 2016. The number of scanners has also grown dramatically under the NDP government in that time. 

Unsustainable workload?

But CT technologists point out there haven’t been meaningful increases in the number of training spaces, so the workforce has largely remained the same size to operate many more machines processing many more patients, leading to burnout.

BCIT says its medical radiography program has all 80 seats from its January intake full, but won’t say how many applicants there were for the two-year diploma program. Depending on the specific job they get upon graduation, students can earn a $70,000 to $80,000 base salary in their first year.

Erdelyi wants people contemplating medical careers to consider medical imaging, which requires less schooling and expense than nursing, and has similar professional satisfaction.

“If you like to interact with people, if you like to be on your feet, if you like to care for people and help people, that's what this profession is all about.”

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