Saskatchewan's MRI wait-list doubled from 2015 to 2019

The waiting list for an MRI in Saskatchewan doubled over four years, despite a government initiative to allow patients to pay for a scan and long operating hours.

Wait-list for MRI 5K in 2015, 10K in 2019

There were roughly 7,000 more people referred for MRIs in 2019 than in 2015. (John Rieti/CBC)

The waiting list for an MRI in Saskatchewan doubled from 2015 to 2019, despite a government initiative allowing patients to pay for a scan and extended MRI hours at hospitals.

According to the provincial government's most recent figures, there were 10,018 people on the wait-list as of June 2019, up from 5,005 in April 2015.

The number of requests for MRIs rose steadily over the four years as well. In June 2019 there were 3,668 requests for MRIs and 2,940 visits. 

"There has been a significant increase in the number of MRI referrals over the past four years," said a Ministry of Health spokesperson in a statement to CBC. 

"We do not have any data to support any one specific cause of the increased demand for MRI. Generally speaking, MRI, over the past decade has become a standard of care for an increasing spectrum of indications. This, in addition to a growing and aging population, are some examples of why the demand for MRI testing is increasing."

According to the government, there were 46,180 patients referred for MRIs in in 2019, up from 38,957 in 2016. 

This chart shows the increase of waits for a MRI in Saskatchewan. The start of the grey line indicates 5,055 patients waiting as April 2015. The end of the grey line indicates 10, 018 waiting as of June 2019. (Government of Saskatchewan)
The chart from the government of Saskatchewan shows requests (in pink) outpacing MRI visits. The most recent figures have 3,668 requests in June 2019 and 2,940 visits. (Government of Saskatchewan)

MRIs open longer hours

The ministry said the window to access MRIs has increased over the past three years. Since 2017, the Regina General Hospital MRI department has been operating 23 hours per day Monday through Friday, two out of every three weeks.

In Saskatoon, Royal University Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital extended their hours of operation to include evenings on the weekends.

Regina's private MRI providers, which are contracted by the province, do not have restrictions on hours of operation.

1-for-1 system working, says government

In 2016, the province introduced a one-for-one MRI system, allowing patients to pay for their MRI at a private clinic. In return, the private clinic had to provide a free MRI to someone on the public wait-list within 14 days.

Since 2016, there have been more than 2,300 patient-funded MRIs, which has resulted in 2,300 patients on the wait-list receiving scans in the public system.

Minister of Health Jim Reiter said in a statement the one-for-one system is helping get people off of the wait-list.

"This made-in-Saskatchewan approach has added capacity to the publicly-funded system at no extra cost to the health system or the patient receiving the second scan," Reiter said.

Reiter said the SHA has plans for a community-based MRI in Saskatoon. He said the province also has $2.4 million set aside in the 2019-20 budget for medical imaging equipment replacement.

NDP says 1-for-1 system has 'failed'

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said offering patients the ability to pay for an MRI "fractures" the system and allows for "queue-jumping" which leads to those that pay having the chance to have their surgery in the public system earlier.

"[The government] should be taking steps to increase the capacity in the public system more effectively and more efficiently and cancel this obviously failed experiment," Meili said.

He said there should be "stricter criteria" on when to refer a patient for an MRI. 

"Around the country, a high number of the MRIs that are ordered aren't medically necessary," Meili said.

After the one-for-one initiative was introduced in 2016, Liberal Health Minister Jane Philpott pledged to "put an end" to the province's private payment system for MRIs.

At the time Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter responded to Philpott saying the system saved the province $1 million and took 1,100 people off the public waiting list.

"We've alleviated pressure in the public system at no cost to taxpayers so we think it's the right thing to do and we plan on continuing with it," Reiter said in November 2016.

In January 2017, the province and federal government reached a détente, with Ottawa allowing Saskatchewan one-year to prove that private MRIs don't hurt the public health-care system.

The federal government has not stepped in since then to stop the practice or refuse health transfers.

In June 2017, nine months after the system was put in place, Saskatchewan's Provincial Auditor Judy Ferguson released a report stating the one-for-one system was not reducing wait times. 

Her report also found that in 2016, one of the MRIs at the Regina General Hospital was nearing its end of life.

During the federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made a promise to spend $1.5 billion to buy new medical imaging equipment for facilities across Canada.

A Conference Board of Canada report released in June of 2019 found excessive wait times for CT and MRI "cost the Canadian economy $3.54 billion in lost productivity each year."

It estimated the cost to modernize the country's medical imaging technology at $470 million.


Adam Hunter


Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him:

with files from The Canadian Press