Manitoba's PC government eyes private MRIs as a wait-time fix

Manitobans may be able to pay for an MRI or CT scan after the provincial government completes a review of wait times in the health-care system.

'We want to see if it works in the Manitoba context,' says Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen

The Manitoba government says it wants to look at Saskatchewan's experience with privately offered magnetic resonance imaging tests. (CBC)

Manitobans may be able to pay for an MRI or CT scan after the provincial government completes a review of wait times in the health-care system.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen was in Saskatchewan last week to meet with provincial health officials and review some of that province's best practices. He said Saskatchewan's experience with privately offered magnetic resonance imaging tests is "interesting" and won't rule it out for Manitoba.
Manitobans may be able to pay for an MRI or CT scan after the provincial government completes a review of wait times in the health-care system. 1:44

"We want to do the analysis. We want to see if it works in the Manitoba context — what would work in Manitoba? But we are not in a position to start taking things off the table," Goertzen told CBC News.

In March 2015, the Saskatchewan government licensed two private clinics to offer MRI tests for a fee. Under the agreement, the clinics can accept a fee from one patient and then must offer a free MRI to a person waiting in the queue in the public health system.

The average wait time for an MRI in Manitoba for a non-emergency diagnosis is 23 weeks. The average wait for an MRI at the Brandon Regional Health Centre is 11 weeks, according to updated numbers provided by the provincial government on Wednesday.

Goertzen said any ideas that might create better health-care outcomes for Manitobans has to be considered when the Progressive Conservative government launches its wait-time task force later this fall or in early 2017.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen says private MRIs are 'on the table.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The future of health care in Manitoba and across Canada faces a severe economic test to come as costs rise and baby boomers require more services, Goertzen added. 

"When I look at the expenditures and the realities of health, and knowing that within 15 years we could have only two departments in government if we continue to go the way it is — finance and health — we have to look at different options and not to take options off the table," he said.

The issue of privatizing some parts of the health-care system briefly flared up during the spring election, when then-PC candidate Brian Pallister was vague about where he thought private care may be appropriate.

'American-style' system

New Democratic Party health critic Matt Wiebe said private MRIs are the beginning of a slippery slope for health-care delivery.

"Clearly the [Progressive] Conservatives are willing to consider a two-tier, American-style health-care system and bring that here to Manitoba. And frankly, we haven't seen the evidence, even in Saskatchewan, where they've moved to that system, that the results are there," Wiebe said. 

The NDP believes more MRI units, such as a new one for Winnipeg's Children's Hospital, is a better choice than a public-private model.

"Manitoba needs to invest in the public health-care system," Wiebe said. "That's how we will reduce the wait times." 

NDP health critic Matt Wiebe says private MRIs could mark the start of U.S.-style health care in Manitoba. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Evidence is scarce

There is little or no data to go on when trying to determine if private diagnostic services alleviate wait times.

Dr. Alan Katz, the Director of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, said no one has looked closely at private MRIs and waiting lists.

Dr. Alan Katz describes Saskatchewan's private MRIs as an 'experiment.' (University of Manitoba)

"Is there evidence that MRI rates come down when you introduce a private clinic? No, there isn't. The only similar evidence is actually Manitoba evidence around cataract surgery," Katz said.

In the case of cataract surgery, Katz said the wait-lists were long and surgeons working in the public system began doing the procedures at private clinics.

"In fact, the wait-lists did not come down, and the wait lists of the specific surgeons who were doing the private surgeries, their public wait lists actually went up," Katz said.

In many cases the problems in the system are not about facilities and funding, but people, Katz said, adding that technical staff and doctors who leave the public system to work in the private system leave a gap behind.

He said Saskatchewan's move to private MRI testing is nothing less than an experiment.

"They are instituting it, but really it's an actual experiment and time will tell what the actual impact is on wait times," Katz said.

Goertzen said any decisions will first consider all of these questions and have data to back them up.


  • An earlier version of this story cited the Manitoba Health website's listed wait times for MRIs and other procedures. A government spokesperson said the website was incorrect. The provincial average time for a non-emergency MRI is 23 weeks, not 22 weeks as initially stated. The average wait time for an MRI in Brandon is 11 weeks, not two as shown on the website.
    Sep 07, 2016 2:23 PM CT