Thousands of Albertans have imaging procedures delayed as contrast dye shortage continues

·3 min read
A CT scan is performed at Calgary's South Health Campus. (David Bell/CBC - image credit)
A CT scan is performed at Calgary's South Health Campus. (David Bell/CBC - image credit)

A global shortage of contrast dye has resulted in approximately 2,400 Albertans having their imaging procedures cancelled so far and more will get a call with similar news next week.

The dye makes blood vessels and organs more visible and its used in roughly half of the CT scans performed in Alberta. It's also used for some heart procedures and other surgeries.

The shortage was sparked by the shutdown of a GE Healthcare production plant in Shanghai, which was closed due to COVID-19 lockdowns. It's one of Canada's main suppliers of the contrast material.

The company announced earlier this month that the plant is back up and running at 100 per cent capacity, but the impacts continue to be felt in Alberta and elsewhere.

"To date, approximately 2,400 patients have been contacted to have their imaging procedures delayed, and we anticipate another 1,200 procedures will be postponed next week," Alberta Health Services said in a tweet on Friday.

"We will reschedule patients as quickly as possible."

While AHS is expecting shipments in the coming weeks, the situation is not expected to return to normal until September.

Urgent cases prioritized

"I want to be very cautious," said Dr. Manish Joshi, the Calgary zone medical director of diagnostic imaging with Alberta Health Services and the academic head of radiology at the University of Calgary.

"As a healthcare provider, you feel a little powerless in some ways because you can't get the ... substances that you need."

Joshi is part of a task force, including a range of specialists, meeting weekly to deal with the shortage of contrast dye.

Submitted by Manish Joshi
Submitted by Manish Joshi

Doctors are preserving the contrast dye for the most urgent cases and the current strategy includes delaying procedures — most of them CT scans — when its safe to do so.

The decision essentially boils down to how quickly patients need them.

"We're trying to ensure that patients who are waiting for cancer treatments or patients that are waiting for surgery are affected the least," he said.

"[They] are the ones that we are most sensitive to. And so if the shortage goes on those may be affected too. But at this point those are the ones we want to leave untouched if we can."

In addition to postponements, alternate tests — including MRIs and ultrasounds — are being used in some cases and doctors are trying to reduce the amount of contrast material they use in each case.

The shortage comes at a time when Albertans are already facing significant healthcare delays.

"It is something that we obviously take pretty seriously because patients are waiting. They've been waiting for a long time. We're already delayed. So this does not help that," he said.

According to Joshi, the situation highlights a wider problem with Canada's reliance on a single manufacturer for a large proportion of its contrast dye.

"We definitely need to look at our supply chains to make sure that we're not reliant on one particular producer or one particular factory."

The good news, he said, is that the plant in Shanghai has resumed operations, and while the exact amounts are unknown, shipments are expected later in June and July.

"AHS is encouraged that inbound shipments of some contrast dye in allotted quantities will be arriving over the next several weeks, with full recovery expected by September," the health authority tweeted Friday.

It's also expediting imaging procedures that don't require the contrast material in an effort to reduce the overall waitlist and allow the system to catch up more quickly once supplies return to normal levels.

AHS said it typically performs about 10,000 imaging scans per week in Alberta, of which about 50 per cent use the contrast dye.

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