Hospital directors have voted to draw up a business case for CT scanning services at the Bulkley Valley District Hospital (BVDH) in Smithers.
Board members at the North West Regional Hospital District voted unanimously on Aug. 19 to take the step.
Medical staff at the hospital have made repeated calls for the advanced imaging technology since at least 2005.
In a letter sent to area municipalities this July, emergency room director Dr. Sandy Vestvik said the hospital sends an average of one patient per day to either Terrace or Prince George for CT scanning.
That number does not include people who require CT scans but do not need to be in hospital, such as some cancer patients.
Dr. Vestvik, writing on behalf of all medical staff at the hospital, sent a similar request three years ago.
Since then, she wrote, “our requirements for CT scanning have only increased.”
An early CT scan has become the “gold standard” for many emergency conditions, wrote Dr. Vestvik, including physical injuries, strokes, lung and abdominal disorders.
By combining a large series of X-ray images, a computerized tomography or CT scan provides detailed cross-sectional images of the body.
A new study from a U.S. medical journal found that from 1996 to 2007, a sample of American emergency doctors ordered four times as many CT scans for the most common emergency conditions. The study was published Aug. 11 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
But in many cases, Dr. Vestvik added, doctors at the Smithers hospital simply don’t have time to get an early CT scan done because of how far and sometimes risky it is to drive patients to Terrace or Prince George by ambulance.
While everyone agrees nearby CT scanning could help people in the Bulkley Valley, the cost may be too high.
“First, the cost of the equipment is not the big issue,” said Smithers Mayor Cress Farrow at a recent council meeting. “The big issue is that it does cost upwards of $500,000 a year to operate.”
In making a business case to Northern Health, the mayor said that the hospital board will have to weigh the cost of paying CT technicians against the cost of taking patients to Terrace and Prince George by ambulance.
Also, the hospital board has to work out how many people might go to Smithers for a CT scan, the mayor said. Patients might come from as far as the Hazeltons and Burns Lake, he added.
That kind of region-wide planning can be a big challenge in northwest B.C., said Cormac Hikisch, health services administrator for the Bulkley Valley.
“The difficult part is not having every diagnostic tool in every community,” he said.
But similar services are doing well at the Bulkley Valley District Hospital.
For example, Hikisch said it is one of the few health facilities in the region that provides 24-hour ultrasound, a service that pools patients from as far as Terrace and Burns Lake.
Whether a CT scanning service at the hospital could be as cost-effective remains to be seen.