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Some non-urgent procedures postponed as B.C. deals with worldwide medical dye shortage

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.


A worldwide shortage of medical contrast dye is forcing the postponement of non-urgent and elective procedures that require the dye and can’t be done any other way.

The shortage comes after one of the primary companies that make the dye, GE Healthcare, had to shut down production at its factory during COVID-19 lockdowns. Although it’s back up and running at full capacity, the shortage continues to affect hospitals and clinics globally.

B.C.’s Ministry of Health told CBC in an emailed statement that GE Healthcare has stressed the need to conserve what supply health authorities have.

Contrast dye makes blood vessels and organs more visible and is used in CT scans, heart procedures and other surgeries.

Dr. Brenda Farnquist, a radiologist at Kelowna General Hospital, said there is about a three to four-week supply of contrast dye in the province right now. Uncertainty about when more is coming means some non-urgent and elective procedures are being postponed, so contrast can be rationed for those that require it immediately. 

Urgent procedures will go ahead, as usual, Farnquist said.

The ministry said all requests for CT scans using contrast will be reviewed, and, when possible, those procedures will be done without the contrast or using an alternative procedure before it is postponed. 

If any area in the province requires more, Farnquist said health authorities will move it to where it’s needed. 

The shortage is affecting other provinces, including neighbouring Alberta, where thousands of residents who had scheduled imaging procedures have been told their appointments will have to wait. More than 1,000 more postponements are expected next week.

Farnquist said GE Healthcare makes about half the world’s contrast dye. Although there is another supplier, she said it has contracts to fulfil and doesn’t have the capacity to make enough to fill the current gap.

More shipments of dye are expected in the next six weeks, but it’s not certain, she added. The ministry said GE Healthcare could not confirm when B.C. will get more dye. 

“We’re literally having … twice-a-week meetings to see where we are on this with supply,” she said. “It’s expected that this is going to go on until September until that factory is up to full speed.”

Vancouver radiologist and B.C. Radiological Society president Dr. Charlotte Yong-Hing said she doesn’t expect the shortage and delays in imaging procedures to affect patient care “too much.”

“We are hoping it is very temporary,” she said.

Yong-Hing said, “In every crisis, there is opportunity,” which means health care workers are looking at ways to use contrast more efficiently and looking for creative ways to preserve contrast in the event this ever comes up again. 

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