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NEWS

Thursday, January 12, 2006

JGH given green light for 1,300 PET scans a year

By Janice Arnold
Staff Reporter

Three years after philanthropists donated an expensive, state-of-the-art positron emission tomography (PET) scanner to the Jewish General Hospital (JGH), the Quebec government has given the go-ahead for its use.

The government had balked because of the cost of operating the equipment, including installation, staffing and upkeep, which can be over one million dollars a year. At the time of the donation, only two PET scanners, used primarily in cancer diagnosis, were in operation in public institutions in the province.

Lead donor Aaron Fish, however, is not satisfied because he believes the 1,300 scans a year the health ministry will fund is not enough and could be at least twice that number.

“I’m still frustrated,” said Fish. “First of all, it should not have taken this long. We are talking about a technology that saves suffering and, in the long term, saves the province money as well.”

The JGH’s PET centre is located in the newly constructed underground nuclear medicine department, is now seeing four patients a day between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., said JGH spokesperson Glenn Nashen. That can now increase to an average of 51/2 tests per day, he said.

Currently, there is a waiting period at the JGH of about three weeks and patients are sometimes sent to other hospitals, he said.

Fish, former owner of Unican Security Systems Ltd., and two friends spent $2.6 million on the scanner, a good price, he said, because he personally shopped for it, soliciting bids from suppliers.

“This is a very expensive piece of equipment that is sitting idle 50 to 60 per cent of the time. Such a limited use is ridiculous. Ten to 12 tests could easily been done each day,” he said, if the money was there.

The JGH, however, is happy to finally be getting the scanner running – it was installed in September – and is reserving any criticism of the government. Nashen said the PET scanner is already improving the efficiency of cancer care because it makes diagnosis quicker and may reduce the need for other interventions and the incidence of unnecessary treatment.

In November, Health Minister Philippe Couillard announced $22 million in new funding to the province’s hospitals that will significantly increase the use of PET. This imaging technique shows in cross-section how an organ or tissue is functioning by tracking a radioactive substance injected into the bloodstream. It is an especially valuable tool in the detecting and monitoring brain and other tumours, as well as neurological and cardiovascular problems.

PET is considered more advanced than conventional imaging with computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which show the structure of the body. Because of PET’s precision, doctors can sometimes avoid doing exploratory surgery, and the number of chemotherapy treatments may be reduced because it can show that a cancer has been destroyed.

But PET scans are more expensive. The equipment also requires specially constructed centres to contain radiation and accommodate its weight. Staff also must be trained.

In 2002, only the Montreal Neurological Institute and the University of Sherbrooke Hospital in the Eastern Townships had PET scanners. Last year, the McGill University Health Centre and the Centre Hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal (CHUM) also got them.

By 2007, the government’s plan is to have 14 PET scanners in operation in the province, conducting 21,000 tests per year. In this phase of funding, the JGH is one of six Montreal hospitals, plus Sherbrooke, to get the green light to either open PET centres or increase the number of tests they conduct.

By next year, CHUM, for example, will increase the number of scans it does from 1,500 to 4,000.

Fish, together with David Stendel and Morty Fruchter, approached the JGH in 2002, when it launched a $200-million capital campaign, and were advised by executive-director Henri Elbaz that the PET scanner was what the hospital needed, Fish said.

Fish sees no reason why the JGH should be doing 1,300 scans a year, when the Hopital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, which serves not many more patients, will be permitted to do 3,000.

The JGH’s oncology department is considered one of the best in the province, he pointed out, and the JGH will be the site of the $53.4-million Segal cancer centre, expected to be completed in a couple of years.

“The JGH is not getting a fair share,” said Fish, adding that 80 per cent of the JGH’s patients are not Jewish.,

Fish strongly believes in public health care, and is perturbed that private clinics with PET scanners have recently opened in Montreal to serve those who can pay.

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