Radiology service concerns doctor

17:00, Jul 17 2012

Taranaki patients are suffering as a shortage of radiology services impedes basic treatment, progress and recovery, according to a Taranaki general practitioner.

The doctor, who asked to be anonymous to protect his job, has patients who have had to wait up to nine months for essential scans - in some cases putting the patient's life at risk.

The Hawera-based GP told of cases where crucial scans were not getting priority. In November last year he referred a cancer survivor with a suspected relapse for an ultrasound.

"I saw her yesterday and she said she was having it next week," he said.

"If there is a tumour there . . . nine months' delay means it's going to be that much bigger and possibly inoperable."

At the same time the waiting list at Fulford Radiology Services, the Taranaki provider, costs the country as those requiring scans because of an accident sit on ACC waiting to be seen.


Fulford Radiology Board director Flora Gilkison said she did not know how many machines there were, how many staff operated them or what their accepted waiting time would be.

Earlier this month she said there was a nationwide shortage of radiographers. Last week she said staffing levels were constantly fluctuating according to requirements and workload.

"There hasn't been a business case for extra ultrasound machines."

As far as she's aware ACC is happy with the waiting lists.

"The waiting times are managed quite sufficiently."

Michael Hundleby, the Health Ministry's performance director for district health boards, said he did not know the average waiting time for radiology services around the country.

Asked what an acceptable time would be, he said they were best determined by a doctor and were individual to each patient.

The concerned GP said that in the past, when he expressed his concerns to Fulford Radiology, it had passed the buck to the Taranaki District Health Board and vice-versa.

He said GPs wasted a lot of time battling the system just to get things done - something that has gone on for years in Taranaki.

"It's the tip of the iceberg in what a GP has to deal with every day," he said. "All the other GPs here are jaded and disillusioned."

ACC spokeswoman Stephanie Melville said it was aware of constraints on Fulford to provide timely service in Taranaki.

"Fulford Radiology is contracted to provide service to ACC and the contract specifies time frames for services to be completed.

"Where they are under pressure to meet the contractual timeframes, our process is to work with them and ensure those clients who are off work with injury receive the priority under the contract."

People don't often have to travel out of the region but it may be necessary if they need prompt treatment. She explained that ACC was a purchaser, not a provider of the service, but could influence the priority of the

clients. People on ACC generally had imaging work done within 10 to 15 working days, she said.

This was not the case for Robert Thorne, of Oakura. He injured his shoulder at work on May 30 but was not able to see a doctor until June 7, when he was referred to Fulford.

Meanwhile, he was at home on ACC and treatment could not progress until he got the scan. Two weeks later he got a letter saying his appointment was scheduled for July 25.

"I was really p***** off. I thought, ‘I'm not having this'."

He asked his doctor if he could be sent, with ACC approval, outside the region for the scan. Several hours after referral he was contacted by private Hamilton clinic Anglesea. At the scan, the next day, it was discovered he had a torn tendon on his left shoulder.

"Otherwise we would never have known it was torn. We would still be waiting," he said.

"This is the ludicrousness of it all. How many thousands of dollars are being wasted by people just sitting there [on ACC] when they're waiting."

Another case is that of John Hamerton, of Hawera, who recently injured his shoulder in a wood-chopping accident.

He was facing a six-week wait, on ACC, for an ultrasound. But after his wife and the South Taranaki Star started making inquiries, his scan was completed in two weeks.

"The lady that did it said she had been borrowed from Auckland," he said. "I gather she's on loan temporarily."

Fulford spokeswoman Dr Gilkison said this was not uncommon.

"We may have done that because somebody's gone on holiday . . . many radiology companies bring locums in and out all the time."

Ministry of Health DHB performance director Mr Hundleby said it was unusual for Taranaki patients to go out of town for ultrasounds.

"DHBs are encouraged to and do work regionally to provide the best possible service to their communities."

"We are advised by Taranaki DHB that staffing can be constrained from time to time, particularly where unplanned leave occurs," he said.

"Where this occurs the DHB and Fulford radiology work together to manage the situation."