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Liberals seem to be funding a PET scanner for Windsor that Sudbury had to fundraise for

What’s more, the head of nuclear medicine at Windsor Hospital says neither Sudbury nor Windsor has the population to support a permanent scanner
A concept drawing of how the stilted home of the HSN’s PET scanner could look. (Yellowega Bélanger Salach Architecture)

Giving $3.5 million to Windsor Regional Hospital to purchase a positron emission tomography/computed tomography scanner could ultimately hurt patients in Sudbury and the southwest, says a nuclear medicine specialist.

The Health and Long-Term Care ministry announced last week the Windsor hospital would receive the same amount of money it took residents of the northeast six years to raise for a similar PET/CT scanner.

Dr. Kevin Tracey, head of nuclear medicine at Windsor Regional Hospital and co-owner of Precision Diagnostic Imaging, said he was blindsided by the ministry announcement, made at a news conference last week to which he was not invited.

Tracey has been conducting PET scans, funded by OHIP at $1,000 each, since 2011 in his mobile PET clinic docked at the Windsor hospital. He asked the ministry to replace his scanner with one that costs $2.5 million that could serve residents of Windsor, as well as Sudbury and the northeast.

Tracey had proposed the mobile clinic operate two days a week in the southwest and two days a week in Sudbury, and said it could be up and running in a very short time.

Instead, he said, the ministry is playing “a shell game” by installing a scanner in a hospital in Windsor that will require $1 million in renovations to house. It is money ill-spent because a new hospital is being built and the scanner will have to be moved in the next few years at a cost of another million, he said.

Many Sudburians, including Sudbury nuclear medicine specialist Dr. David Webster, called on the ministry for more than 16 months to bring the mobile PET/CT clinic to Sudbury. Webster and other proponents said scans could be done in the mobile while space for a permanent scanner was built at Health Sciences North and the scanner purchased.

The Sam Bruno Pet Steering Committee offered to pay the cost of constructing a short, enclosed walkway to move patients from the hospital into the mobile clinic and back.

When the Health ministry rejected that idea, then-Minister Eric Hoskins said the quality of scans done in mobile clinics like Tracey’s is not as good as those performed on scanners in places such as hospitals.

Tracey takes issue with that and says the images generated on the older scanner at his clinic are as good or better than many done on permanent scanners at some hospitals and research centres in Ontario.

Nickel Belt New Democrat MPP France Gélinas was stunned last week to learn the ministry was giving $3.5 million to the Windsor hospital. It virtually took a decade to raise the money to purchase one for Sudbury, she said.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of a campaign launched by the late Sam Bruno, which Gelinas and thousands of residents supported. Bruno died of colorectal cancer in 2010 at age 54, fighting until his last breath for a scanner for Sudbury.

Six years later, the Liberal government allocated $1.6 million in operational funding for a scanner the Sudbury hospital did not have. It later pledged $4.6 million to build a PET/CT suite on stilts to be attached to the nuclear medicine department at Ramsey Lake Health Centre.

“It was 10 years ago today that I wrote my first letter to the minister of Health, demanding equity of access to PET scanning for the people of northeastern Ontario,” said Gélinas in a statement Friday.

“Why is it that the grieving Bruno family had to spearhead efforts to raise $3.5 million to pay for the purchase when other communities don’t?” Gelinas asked. “Why did 32,000 people have to sign petitions before the minister would even consider a PET scanner for the Northeast?” 

The Sam Bruno PET Steering Committee raised $2.5 million with some large donations, but the majority came from individuals chipping in small amounts because they believed in the cause.

The Sam Bruno PET campaign was pushed over the top in November 2016 when two anonymous donors each gave $500,000.

Sudbury Liberal MPP Glenn Thibeault said Windsor isn’t receiving any special treatment from his government. He said it’s like comparing apples and oranges to draw any similarity between the Health ministry funding of a scanner in Windsor and Sudbury’s campaign to raise money for a scanner.

Thibeault said citizens of Windsor raised money for the original PET scanner in their community 11 years ago and the Health ministry is simply replacing that piece of diagnostic equipment with a more modern one.

If Sudbury had had a PET/CT scanner in operation for years, it, too, would likely get funding for a new one, said Thibeault.

He credited the Sam Bruno PET Steering Committee for leading the fundraising charge for a scanner and said it would never have come to fruition without the work of its members.

Thibeault also said a request for proposals to purchase a scanner for HSN was issued in early January of this year with a 90-day period to submit bids. The MPP said Sudbury’s scanner should be up and running by the end of 2018.

Tracey said his mobile scanner was privately funded and that no public money was raised to establish it.

For 16 months, said Tracey, countless Sudburians have had to travel to Toronto or elsewhere for PET scans when they could have had them at a mobile clinic here. HSN’s own projection is that the PET/CT scanner won’t be complete until winter of 2019.

Gélinas is angry it is taking so long for Sudbury to get a scanner.

“It took our communities from 2010 to 2016 to raise $3.5 million to cover the cost of purchasing the PET scanner and we are still waiting,” said Gelinas. “It should never have come to this.”

The Health ministry said the PET/CT scanner that Windsor will get is state-of-the-art and will help people in that area be diagnosed faster and closer to home. The Windsor announcement is part of a long-term strategy to ensure access to diagnostic imaging throughout the province, it said in a release.

Ontario has 14 PET/CT scanners in 12 centres and is working with Cancer Care Ontario on a long-term PET strategy.

Tracey said the future of the mobile clinic is uncertain. He still believes it should be transported to Sudbury now where it could potentially save lives while HSN’s scanner is being purchased and space built for it.

Sixty per cent of the PET scanning done in the United States is carried out in mobile clinics, said Tracey.

“It’s wrong,” he said of the Health ministry’s insistence mobile PET scanning is second class. 

The quality of mobile PET scans has been validated independently and by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he said.

Tracey said neither Windsor nor Sudbury have the patient population for a PET scanner to operate full-time. It makes more sense economically to move a scanner back and forth between the two communities, he said.

If the ministry goes ahead and funds PET/CT scanners as it has announced, “patients from Sudbury and from Windsor will be driving the highway to other centres to get their PET” next winter, he said.

“Nobody wants to go on that highway when they have cancer and drive.”

Carol Mulligan is an award-winning reporter and one of Greater Sudbury’s most experienced journalists.