Whether the Sudbury hospital should have a PET scanner has become a hot campaign issue in the Sudbury byelection.

Positron emission tomography scanners help diagnose cancer. There are 12 PET machines in Ontario, but the only one in the north is in Thunder Bay. Patients in Sudbury and northeastern Ontario have to travel to Toronto for the scans. 

There has been plenty of political support for a machine among Sudbury byelection candidates. Listen to their promises:

Despite the political support, there are still questions about whether purchasing a PET scanner for Sudbury would be a wise use of health care dollars.

The numbers show there would be about 600 PET scans performed each year, if Health Sciences North had its own machine.

The hospital did try to make a case for a PET scanner in 2010, said Health Sciences North spokesperson Dan Lessard, but it discovered the machine would have an operating deficit of about $600,000 a year because it would not perform enough scans to cover its costs.

"We don't have that kind of money in our budget to cover the operation of a PET scan, so we would need operating dollars for that," Lessard said.

Paying for operating costs a challenge

Dan Lessard

Dan Lessard is a spokesperson for Health Sciences North in Sudbury. (CBC)

The northeast Local Health Integration Network — which holds the health care purse strings for the region — would have to provide those operating funds, Lessard said.

The LHIN confirms the hospital's 2010 proposal did not meet the financial criteria required, but the agency said it's waiting on the hospital to make a new case for the a machine, which would require the hospital coming up with about $5 million to purchase the equipment, plus the funds to operate it. At this point, the hospital is not moving forward with that, Lessard said.

"If there's new data that would show that we could make that business case more viable, we're certainly willing to look at that, absolutely, but not much as changed as far as the dynamics," said Lessard.

It's common practice for communities to fundraise to pay for medical equipment, but Lessard said operating costs can't come from the money raised because they must be consistent from year-to-year.

PET scanner not a government priority

The push for a PET scanner in Sudbury is not because of wait times. All the machines in the province have average wait times of less than a week. Instead, the conversation is about quality of life and whether people who are ill should have to travel for the scan, especially in light of higher rates of some cancers in the northeastern Ontario.

There's been a campaign for a PET scanner in Sudbury now for several years in the name of the late Sam Bruno. He started pushing for a machine after travelling to Toronto for PET scans for his own cancer. When Bruno died in 2010, a committee kept his dream alive — and has raised nearly $700,000 dollars.

"We have the highest cancer death rate in the province and we are the only region without a PET scanner so it's imperative for the people of the northeast to have one here," said Brenda Tessaro with the fundraising committee.

Over the past few years, the answer from the Liberal health minister has been "no" to a PET scanner for Sudbury. When Deb Matthews was in the position, she maintained that it was not a health care priority for Sudbury 

Liberal candidate Glenn Thibeault has been vocal in support of the PET scanner, but Premier Kathleen Wynne would not commit to the idea on a recent visit to Sudbury.

"The community and the hospital, the LHIN need to work on deciding about a PET scanner," Wynne said. "Those decisions are made locally as you know and we will continue to work with the community."

Eric Hoskins

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins says he sees that it is "incredibly challenging for an individual, often frail or ill" to make an hours-long trip for a PET scan. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

But in Sudbury this week, current Health Minister Eric Hoskins said quality of life is also a consideration and he is willing to look at putting a machine in Sudbury.

"I agree with the argument that it is incredibly challenging for an individual, often frail or ill, to have to make that trip," he said.

Mobile scanner?

There is a proposal that could provide a compromise between the cost of a permanent​ machine and the shortage of funds to operate one.

Health Sciences North said a private company has submitted a proposal to the government to operate a portable PET scanner. It could visit several areas of the province where scans are needed, including Sudbury.

Some in the medical community say it could be the best solution for Sudbury.

"This is going to be a big step forward because we don't have a permanent one nor is it likely we would get one," said Dr. Peter Zalan, the president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. 

The committee that has been fundraising for a PET scanner said it's looking at the mobile option, but still eventually wants a permanent machine in Sudbury.

As voting day approaches in the Sudbury byelection, CBC Sudbury will be taking an in-depth look at key campaign issues. Stay tuned for future instalments in this series.