Ultrasound wait times in Antigonish have jumped recently to six months from 15 days at St. Martha's Regional Hospital and that has raised concerns about patient safety.

St. Martha's Regional Hospital used to have three working ultrasound machines, but three months ago, the chief radiologist for the region decommissioned two of them — because they were not giving accurate results.

'It's getting very frustrating when I have to go hat-in-hand and ask for charity for standard pieces of equipment that are well past their service age' - Dr. Mike Silver

"It's obvious that we're just not seeing what we should be seeing with these units. So I had to bite the bullet and shut them down," said Dr. Mike Silver, chief of the department of diagnostic imaging for Guysborough-Antigonish-Strait Health Authority.

Silver said the 10-year-old machines should have been replaced two years ago. 

He said technology has advanced at a quick pace over the last 10 years, he also said the units degrade over time, affecting image quality.

Silver said the machines in Antigonish are so out of date that the service company couldn't get parts anymore. 

"This has happened for every piece of equipment that I have been in charge of purchasing for the last 18 years since I've been here. There is no capital equipment plan in this province. Every single minister of health I've talked to — and I've talked to every one of them over the last 18 years — they all say they want to have a plan to replace equipment before it gets too old but, so far, it just hasn't happened. We're just going for crisis to crisis," said Silver.

"It's getting very frustrating when I have to go hat-in-hand and ask for charity for standard pieces of equipment that are well past their service age." 

'Absolutely no doubt' patients could be at risk

Silver said there's "absolutely no doubt" patients could be put at risk.

"Sometimes we don't know what's urgent. There's an awful lot of people that come through with vague abdominal pain and most times that can't be considered an urgent study. But in some cases — the primary symptom for ovarian cancer, for instance, is vague abdominal pain. So if you have to wait six months [to a year] for an ultrasound study just to find out you have ovarian cancer, it's probably too late." 

Dr. Dawn Edgar, an obstetrician at St. Martha's, also said she thinks the delay puts patients at risk.

"Routine ultrasounds, for example if someone came in with pelvic pain, if something doesn't improve, [that patient] would probably be waiting a year for an ultrasound," she said.

Leo Glavine

Health Minister Leo Glavine says he'll try to get one ultrasound to Antigonish as soon as possible. (CBC)

Edgar said there are urgent appointments available but she said not everyone can be classified that way.

"It does affect my ability to be certain about fetal well being. For example, when a woman is overdue, we like to monitor them carefully with ultrasounds to ensure that we're OK to wait another few days before we, perhaps, induce labour and at this point it can be a challenge to get an ultrasound. I'm unable to be certain that this baby is well," she said.

Health minister promises new ultrasound

Health Minister Leo Glavine said the issue is “at the top of [my] list."

“There is, from my perspective, a real sense of urgency that we get some work underway to address this concern," he said.

“We have to get a new ultrasound there as quickly as possible. That's certainly my commitment as minister."

Glavine said the committee that oversees buying new equipment is looking into the matter.

Silver said they could replace two machines and the software on the existing machine for about $400,000.

He also said the province should have a policy to ensure all equipment is replaced on time.

"The New Glasgow hospital bought those exact same machines a couple of months after we did 10 years ago and they've since been replaced through their foundation and we're sitting here and we've still not gotten funding," he said.

Glavine said he agrees with Silver that there needs to be a better process to avoid a similar situation.

“I think we need to have those sage words and put them into a better plan for the future… We all know that early diagnosis is the best medicine in terms of timely treatment. This is the very kind of issue that causes me great concern," the health minister said.

“I take no comfort in finding out the situations the patients of St. Martha’s are facing."