Manitoba

Winnipeg patients waiting months longer for ultrasounds than those in Saskatoon

Winnipeggers are waiting as long as five months for elective ultrasounds while their neighbours in Saskatoon can get one done in under a week.

Wait list for ultrasounds has grown to an average of 16 weeks in Winnipeg

Winnipeggers are waiting as long as five months for elective ultrasounds while their neighbours in Saskatoon can get one done in under a week. (Mike Hutmacher/Associated Press)

Winnipeggers are waiting as long as five months for elective ultrasounds while their neighbours in Saskatoon can get one done in under a week.

The wait times for non-urgent ultrasounds — a diagnostic scan that uses images to detect problems in someone's internal organs — has skyrocketed in the past year, specifically at St. Boniface Hospital where the wait times have nearly tripled in the past five years to 24 weeks.

There are currently more than 10,000 patients waiting for an ultrasound in the city.

Meanwhile, at Associated Radiologists in Saskatoon, urgent scans are done immediately and any other scan can be done within a week, according to the clinic's business manager.

"I wouldn't want to be one of those waiting," he said when he learned about the current times in Winnipeg.

"I didn't think the wait was that long in Winnipeg."

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The news is just the latest in a series of escalating wait times plaguing diagnostics in Winnipeg. Earlier this month, CBC reported on myocardial perfusion studies, which are nuclear scans of the heart, where wait times have climbed to a five-year high.

On Tuesday, CBC also reported that echocardiograms, which are ultrasounds specifically for the heart, now have 7,000 patients waiting and the wait times have ballooned to 71 weeks at St. Boniface.

Wait time average 16 weeks in Winnipeg

One difference between the two provinces is that in Saskatchewan, public-private partnerships are built that allow for community labs and doctors to do ultrasounds and echocardiograms and then bill the province.

In Winnipeg both procedures are only done in hospitals.

A elective ultrasound is done in about four weeks in hospital Saskatoon or Regina or within a week at a clinic in either city.

According to data provided by Manitoba Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, wait times for ultrasounds have been steadily climbing over the past six years.

In 2013-14 the average wait in Winnipeg was seven weeks. By the end of this fiscal year the average had doubled to 14 weeks.

In Winnipeg, the wait time as of April 2019 goes from 24 weeks at St. Boniface Hospital to 13 weeks at the Victoria General. The average wait over the seven hospitals performing the ultrasounds is 16 weeks.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he is open to all ideas, including turning to the private sector, to help alleviate wait times. (CBC)

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said on Tuesday his government is open to exploring new ways of increasing capacity, including reaching out to the private sector.

"In other provinces there is the ability for the system to procure those tests from other entities in the private sector. It is happening in Ontario, it is happening in Saskatchewan, it is happening elsewhere," he said.

"I have directed system leaders in Shared Health to increase capacity and that would scope in getting those tests outside of hospitals."

A spokesperson for Shared Health, the provincial health organization in charge of diagnostic services, cited an increase in demand as one of the causes of the wait times increasing for ultrasounds.

She also pointed to staff vacancies due to medical or maternity leave.

Historically the positions are tough to fill due to a limited number of training programs for sonographers, she said.

"However, a graduating class at Red River College of nine general sonographers and four ECHO sonographers will complete their program in June and we certainly hope to attract some of those new staff into our system," she said in a prepared statement..

They are also trying to contact patients scheduled for an ultrasound at St. Boniface to offer quicker service at another site.

"This solution will not immediately fix the backlog but once these positions are filled, we anticipate a reduction in wait times," she said in the statement.

Doctor calls this the 'ballooning effect'

Dr. Chris Simpson, an Ontario cardiologist and vice-dean of the Queen's University School of Medicine, says it is often the less-publicized, more minor procedures that can fall to the wayside when governments start trying to tackle wait times.

He calls it the ballooning effect.

"There's a lot of political attention to things like cataracts and joint replacement and bypass surgery," he said.

"When a lot of resources and time are put into those … resources and time are taken away from other things … you sort of squeeze to get better results in one area of the health care system but another area of the health care system gets the balloon."

Dr. Chris Simpson, president of the Canadian Medical Association, says a robust home care system is part of the solution to hospital overcrowding. (Canadian Medical Association)

The province recently pledged $5.3 million in funding to provide more hip and knee replacement and cataract surgeries.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says the increases for all these tests point to flaws in the government's planned overhaul of the health care system. 

"The trend that these numbers show though is that things are getting much worse under Pallister," he said. "That is the problem that I have with this overall direction he is taking health care and that he's been in such a rush to make changes that he's forgotten that he could make things worse."

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

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