Waits for cancer testing in B.C. continue to grow amid staff shortages, radiologist says

The B.C. Radiological Society says it has warned the province of a 'critical shortage' of medical imaging technologists and the need to replace aging equipment.  (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
The B.C. Radiological Society says it has warned the province of a 'critical shortage' of medical imaging technologists and the need to replace aging equipment. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

As provincial and territorial health ministers met with their federal counterpart in Vancouver on Monday, a B.C.-based radiologist says wait times for medical imaging to test for cancer have risen amid staffing shortages.

Paula Gordon, a clinical professor in the University of British Columbia's department of radiology, who specializes in breast imaging, said wait times for testing to diagnose or rule out cancer were not good prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and have gotten progressively worse.

She said women in need of a needle biopsy to check for cancer cells used to be able to get one within a couple of days of an ultrasound.

"Those waits are now up to three-plus months," Gordon said.

Wait times for medical imaging, she says, can have a significant impact on a patient's outcome.

Some cancers move quickly, while others progress more slowly. Breast cancer, she says, usually falls somewhere in the middle.

"But for women who have a rapidly-growing cancer, if they find a lump in their breast, the time it takes to get all the tests done, including the needle biopsy, can be such that the cancer grows while she's waiting and can even spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body."

'Something is very wrong'

Heather Johnstone of Vancouver says she first noticed numbness in her feet in 2020, prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. X-rays found nothing, so she was referred for an MRI, which took a year. A second MRI was ordered, and that took six months. It found a large tumour compressing more than half of her spinal cord. She was able to get surgery in April, and she continues to recover.

Prior to the discovery of the tumour, Johnstone dealt with physical discomfort as numbness ascended from her feet to her legs. She also dealt with the psychological stress that comes with uncertainty. At different times, she says she thought she might have had Lyme Disease or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

"[I'm] thinking something is very wrong, and I don't know what it is."

Staffing issues in B.C. and across Canada

The B.C. Radiological Society says it penned a letter to B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix in September to voice its concerns about patients waiting for medical imaging, citing a "critical shortage" of technologists and the need to replace aging equipment.

The society says data from the Canadian Institute of Health Information found that in 2020, B.C. had the lowest number of medical radiation technologists per capita in Canada, and the province would need more than 1,300 additional technologists to reach the national average.

There is also a shortage of sonographers for ultrasound imaging.

It is calling on the province to do more to recruit and retain experienced technologists and sonographers and train new ones.

The issue is not isolated to B.C.

The Canadian Association of Radiologists has asked the federal government for $1 billion in funding over three years for new medical imaging equipment and the development of a plan to hire more medical radiation technologists and sonographers.

Earlier this year, the head of the B.C. Cancer Agency cited staffing as a core reason why cancer patients in B.C. are waiting longer than they should for treatment.

It is expected that 31,000 British Columbians will be diagnosed with cancer in 2022, according to the agency. Nearly half of British Columbians will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, the province says.