Alberta doctors raise alarm about long waits for MRI and CT scans

Doctors from around Alberta say ballooning wait times for publicly funded MRIs and CT scans are putting patients at risk. They're calling on the province and Alberta Health Services to address the wait lists.

Physicians say patients can wait a year for scans at University of Alberta Hospital

A member of a medical team prepares an MRI machine before a procedure at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital. Doctors in Alberta say waits for MRI and CT scans have ballooned in recent months. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Doctors from around Alberta say ballooning wait times for publicly funded MRI and CT scans are putting patients at risk. They're calling on the province and Alberta Health Services to address the backlog.

The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association has published data showing the average wait time for an MRI at the University of Alberta Hospital is now 375 days and the average wait for a CT exam at the Leduc Community Hospital is 275 days. 

The waits in Calgary aren't much shorter, according to the group representing physicians in Edmonton.

"If they don't get done and they wait, they may get sicker and the cancer may spread. They may die … because they don't get early treatment. Or they may be sicker and stay longer in hospital and consume more health-care costs because of delayed diagnosis," warned Dr. Ernie Schuster, president of the association.

He is recommending some patients pay $375 to $800 out of their own pockets for private scans.

MRIs and CT scans are used to diagnose serious health problems, including cancer, stroke and multiple sclerosis.

According to Schuster, the wait times started increasing after surge funding — brought in by the former NDP government and designed to address the problem — disappeared.

"To be honest, I'm concerned," said Schuster.

"For the urgent [scans], the standard is that they should be done in less than 30 days. That is actually a standard that has been set by Alberta Health Services itself and by Alberta Health. But they can't meet that."

Dr. Ernie Schuster, president of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, says waits for MRI and CT scans have increased significantly over the past 6 months. (Submitted by Dr. Ernie Schuster)

Other physician groups worried

The doctors in Edmonton are not speaking out alone.

Physician leaders from around the province have penned a letter to Health Minister Tyler Shandro and AHS CEO Verna Yiu, calling for timely action.

The letter, written by the chair of the Council of Zone Leaders, states "MRI and CT exam access issues are resulting in higher wait times, inappropriate emergency room visits, higher patient costs and significant patient care concerns due to demand outpacing the publicly funded number of exams."

The Alberta Medical Association says it echoes these concerns and has also raised the issue with the minister and AHS officials several times.

In Calgary, Dr. Sarah Glaze, a gynecologic oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, says she is worried about her patients.

"I've never had any trouble getting urgent imaging up until … we really started noticing a difference about three or four months ago," she said. 

"The big difference for us is that when we ask for imaging quickly in order, usually, to plan surgeries, we now frequently get emails back from our booking clerks telling us that it's going to be at least a two- or three-month wait."

Glaze says she doesn't blame radiologists, who are doing their best to squeeze in patients as they can. 

"I worry that ultimately if this trend continues that it could have an effect on patient outcomes, which is obviously the last thing any of us want to see. We want to continue to offer world class treatment for cancer here in Calgary."

Dr. Sarah Glaze, a Calgary oncologist, says she has seen a dramatic change in access to MRI and CT scans for her patients in recent months. (Dr. Sarah Glaze)

AHS admits wait times 'too long'

Alberta Health Services says it is "very concerned" with increasing wait times for CT and MRI scans and it is taking steps to improve access.

"Wait times for hospital inpatients, or patients in an emergency department, are stable and within clinically appropriate guidelines. Those patients are being seen within hours," an AHS spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.

"However, wait-times for outpatients referred for a CT or MRI scan are too long."

Its numbers show demand for CT scans is increasing by five per cent and MRI scans are going up by 3.5 per cent a year.

In the short term, AHS says it's working with physicians to determine when scans are necessary and to prioritize urgent cases. AHS is also developing an action plan with Alberta Health that will focus on minimizing wait times, decreasing costs and managing demand better.

CBC News requested an interview with the Health minister but was provided with a written statement from a spokesperson.

In an email, Steve Buick disputes the doctors' wait-time numbers, pointing to Alberta Health data from December 2019 showing the median wait time for all MRI scans was 13 weeks and the wait at the 90th percentile (some of the longest waits) was 46 weeks.

For CT scans of all urgency levels, the average wait time was five weeks and the waits at the 90th percentile were 17 weeks, according to Buick.

"Our government has maintained AHS's overall funding at the same level as last year, and we have given no direction to AHS on CT or MRI funding or volumes," he said.

"CT wait times doubled under the NDP, and MRI waits increased by around 25 per cent. The NDP approach of throwing 'one-time' money at the health system is a proven failure," he said, referring to the surge funding that is no longer in place.

Radiologists weigh in

But the president of the Alberta Society of Radiologists, Dr. Robert Davies, says the province's numbers don't give an accurate picture of what patients in need of scans are facing.

According to Davies, who is also the section head for diagnostic imaging with the Alberta Medical Association, Alberta Health's data looks retrospectively — rather than looking ahead.

That means the December 2019 data, cited by Buick, looks at patients who have already had their scans completed

"This doesn't show you how long people who are newly entering the system are waiting," said Davies.

"There's a big lag in that information because it's only showing the information of people who have successfully completed their exams. If you're a patient right now in Edmonton and you have a need for a CT scan and you're trying to book an appointment, you may well be facing a wait list that long," he said, referring to the comments from the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association that some patients are facing year-long waits.

Davies says that even the retroactive data — published by Alberta Health — shows wait times are growing.

"It can be dangerous to not have a CT scan or MRI done in a timely fashion," said Davies.

He's calling on the province — which has promised to reinvest any savings it makes through health-care cuts back into the system — to use the $10-12 million in savings garnered through rollbacks recently negotiated with radiologists to address wait times.

According to Davies, in November, radiologists working with  Alberta's major hospitals  agreed to an average 12 per cent rollback in their fees for exams including CTs and MRIs.

He says the savings with that single cut could be used to pay for an additional 30,000 CT or MRI scans per year.

"In Alberta, we've only been performing about 60 per cent as many CT scans versus the national average for quite some time. And it's hard to keep up with demand when CT scans are only funded at that level."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.