East Kootenay to get permanent MRI Machine

East Kootenay will be getting a new full-time MRI machine after years of temporary service.

Getting a diagnosis for an injury can be a time-consuming process no matter where you live. First, doctors may recommend an X-ray or CAT scan in hopes of finding the problem. If that is unsuccessful, they could order an MRI, but that could take up to eight months to come through. That’s a long time to wait in pain, no matter the predicament.

Thankfully for those in the Columbia Valley and East Kootenay, Health Minister Terry Lake and Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett announced last week a $5.3 million investment in a permanent MRI machine for the East Kootenay Regional Hospital located in Cranbrook.

“With this announcement, we continue to build on the long list of investments that have made East Kootenay Regional Hospital a world-class facility,” Bennett said in a press release last week. “Our priority is to give staff and physicians the tools they need to provide excellent care right here in Cranbrook.”

Funding most of the bill for the new diagnostic imaging system will be the Ministry of Health and the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District, which are each contributing $2 million, while the East Kootenay Foundation for Health and the Cranbrook Health Care Auxiliary are committing to fundraise $650,000 to cover the remaining $1.3 million. The MRI is estimated to become permanently in operation sometime in 2018.

Last year, according to Health Minister Terry Lake, the revamped provincial MRI strategy saw significant increases in scans across the province, including a 20 per cent increase in the East Kootenay Region Hospital alone. Under the current strategy, MRI testing for East Kootenay residents is done through a shared mobile MRI unit that comes to Cranbrook approximately once a month. Once the new MRI machine becomes operational, East Kootenay residents will have consistent weekly access to scheduled MRI tests.

Dr. Keith Weber from the Chisel Peak Medical Clinic in Invermere said this enhancement will have a profound impact on those needing alternate scans to X-rays and CAT scans.

“If you’re suffering from back problems or shoulder problems and shoulder pain, it is often an 8-month waitlist to get an MRI done and that’s a long time to suffer through these pains,” he said, noting that people frustrated with the wait often elect to pay massive sums out of pocket for private scans in hopes of avoiding the delay.

“We use it quite sparingly because it is such a limited resource so it would be nice to have that a little more available to us.”

Weber said that oftentimes the injuries of people who are on the waiting list for an MRI end up being resolved or stabilized before the scan date actually arrives. With the long wait times, it’s imperative they try alternative methods like physiotherapy before ordering the more drastic MRI scan.

“You don’t want to just start ordering tests the first time you meet someone in anticipation that they’re not going to be better in eight months,” he said.

The motivation, Weber said, behind improving access to MRI scans is that MRIs are both safer and more informative than other scanning methods because of their ability to scan soft tissue damage.

“Ideally, I would like to use an MRI more than other imaging because it doesn’t have that same radiation exposure,” he said, noting other methods are scientifically proven to be linked to diseases like lymphoma and leukemia. “If I had a choice personally to have an MRI versus a CAT scan of my chest, I would rather have an MRI because it’s much safer.”

Weber said he anticipates that the new MRI machine could decrease wait times to as short as one to four months once implemented, a colossal improvement over the current waiting period.

Essentially, Weber said, the new MRI system will give physicians a more diverse array of options when treating injuries in the future and that’s good news for ailing patients across the East Kootenay.