The control room at the Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) Chalk River nuclear facility is seen during a media tour in Chalk River, Ontario December 19, 2007. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters) )

Leaders of two Canadian nuclear medicine groups warned Thursday in Ottawa that hospitals may soon lay off staff to cut costs if the isotope crisis drags on much longer.

"Hospitals cannot keep paying people to do nothing," said Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, head of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine and chief of nuclear medicine at the London Health Sciences Centre.

Isotope shipments typically arrive over the weekend and, if available, again mid-week. Since isotopes have a brief shelf life and cannot be stockpiled, staff scramble to book patients for tests before the particles decay.

But by the end of the week, increasingly there aren't always enough isotopes left to do scans, leaving health-care providers idle. But hospitals are still obligated to pay staff to be there because they don't always know what their shipments will contain, Urbain said.

"Last Friday, during the entire day, I did four bone scans, and I could do 12 a day," he said. "For the staff, technologists, it's very difficult. A fair amount of them are fearful that they're going to lose their jobs."

While there haven't yet been layoffs, that could quickly change, said Dr. Christopher O'Brien, head of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine and medical director of nuclear medicine at the Brantford General Hospital.

"There may be notices for potential intermittent layoffs, not outright firings," he said. "The ability of hospitals to maintain staff during this crisis situation will become more and more critical as we're facing these greater and greater degrees of intermittent shortages.… "Hospitals are beginning to look at, 'Do we need all the staff?"'

Clinics are already coping with higher costs — paying two to three times more for medical isotopes in some cases, after suppliers and distributors hiked their prices recently.

Moreover, keeping clinics open evenings and weekends to do patient scans before the isotopes decay adds to hospitals' costs, forcing them into debt or to cut other services to pay for the procedures.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s downed reactor at Chalk River, Ont., used to supply about a third of the world's medical isotopes, but it won't be operating again until at least the year's end.

Other reactors around the world are filling in, but clinics still face uncertainty over their isotope supplies.

With files from The Canadian Press