A Scanner Darkly

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  • 01/19/2007
Here's a story right out of the movie "The Barbarian Invasions" and it can be summed up in two words, "Hello Plattsburgh."

For those who think that we should adopt the Canadian health care model this should serve as yet another cold shower of reality or, in the words of Stephen Colbert, a "Truth Mitzvah."

MDs forced abroad for scanner training
Limited access to cancer-detecting machines spurs Ontario university to look elsewhere

Toronto Globe and Mail
January 19, 2007

The use of crucial cancer-detecting PET machines is so restricted in Ontario that one university must send its medical residents to the United States and elsewhere for training. The low number of cancer patients eligible for PET screening means University of Western Ontario residents cannot obtain the experience they require. St. Joseph's Health Care in London scans as few as four patients a week, sometimes none. The rest of the time it experiments on laboratory-bred dogs and pigs.

Of all the provinces that have Positron Emission Tomography scanners, Ontario has the most restrictive access. That's because it is running clinical trials to determine how best to use them on cancer patients.

"It breaks our hearts to have to send them [students] away," said Damien Maharaj, program director of nuclear medicine at Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “We simply have to meet their [Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada] guidelines. Failure to do so would be noted and the potential to go on probation exists."

The development follows an evaluation conducted by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, a body that accredits postgraduate medical programs in addition to certifying specialists. The college told the university that the lack of resident training in PET scanning was a weakness that required a remedy.

The university was asked to put in writing its plan for ensuring that nuclear-medicine residents receive the necessary PET training elsewhere, Dr. Maharaj confirmed. He stressed the program remains fully accredited and that London produces some of the best nuclear-medicine specialists in Canada. Ultimately, though, Dr. Maharaj said: "PET is not a research tool, it's a clinical tool. We really should be offering it to people."

Cancer patients can access Ontario's nine PET scanners under five clinical trials or through a patient registry introduced a year ago. The registry is limited to suspected recurrent colorectal, thyroid or germ-cell cancer and patients with certain solitary pulmonary nodules. As of Oct. 31, 408 Ontario patients had obtained PET scans through the registry and 926 patients had scans as part of the clinical trials.

Compare that to Quebec, a province that provides the broadest access to PET scans; this year, it plans to do 21,000 scans. Patients can access PET scans in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Nova Scotia also plans to purchase a scanner and expects to have it operating by the fall.

"It's terrible," said Christopher O'Brien, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine. "You have one of the major teaching programs that can't meet the Royal College standards because of a government moratorium on access to PET scanning."

Though Dr. Maharaj said the university will try to help defray the costs, ultimately it is a "financial hardship" for the residents who will have to pay rent in two cities, in addition to covering transportation and food costs for three months. Potential training spots include Duke University in North Carolina, Harvard in Boston and centres in Canada, possibly Winnipeg or Sherbrooke, he said.

Training in the United States poses a particular problem: malpractice insurance does not cover the residents so they can act only as observers and cannot interpret the scans. That is why J. C. Warrington, the chief nuclear-medicine resident at the University of Western Ontario, is hoping to relocate to another Canadian city. "We would prefer to not to have to go further than is absolutely required because of our expenses required with travel," said Dr. Warrington, a fourth-year nuclear-medicine resident, one of two who will have to relocate this July.

All other nuclear-medicine residents training at Western will also have to relocate for three months in their final year of training, until the hospital is able to provide more PET scans to patients, Dr. Maharaj said.

A PET scan can find a lung cancer that has spread, preventing a futile operation. Colorectal cancer patients may discover tumours on their liver can be safely removed. A scan can also help determine when chemotherapy is not working, prompting doctors to change a drug cocktail. It costs about $2,500.

Whatever the case, the results need to be carefully interpreted as non-cancerous conditions can resemble cancer; only a biopsy can confirm the presence of cancer.

Dr. Warrington said though relocating may pose an imposition, it is a far greater imposition for cancer patients to travel out of province or country to obtain PET scans. In 2005-2006, 82 Ontarians were sent out of country for PET scans at a cost of $653,255, while 42 others were denied, according to Health Ministry figures provided by John Letherby. However, the process of sending patients to the United States has been winding down since late August.

Figures obtained under a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request reveals that Ontario has sent cancer patients to 20 different U.S. hospitals for PET scans for 18 different conditions, many of them cancers or suspected cases of cancer since April 1, 2002.
They include Duke University -- the very institution to which nuclear-medicine residents may be sent for training. As well, patients have been sent to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Detroit Medical Centre; and Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Of those sent to the United States, the patients had lymphoma and cancers of the breast, brain, esophagus, testes and lung.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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