Revolutionary device helping clear London hospital patient backlog

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The London Health Sciences Center has launched a Canadian first, a new medical imaging device that reduces wait times for the diagnosis of certain head and neck conditions from two months to 20 minutes.

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The London Health Sciences Center has launched a Canadian first, a new medical imaging device that reduces wait times for the diagnosis of certain head and neck conditions from two months to 20 minutes.

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LHSC’s MiniCat machine, a cone-beam CT unit, is primarily used on patients with ear disorders in the hospital, but can also be used to scan patients with sinus-related facial problems, to the jaw or to the bones.

“The machine is really good for bone resolution,” said Sumit Agrawal, a surgeon and scientist in LHSC’s department of otolaryngology, a medical specialty focused on head and neck diseases and conditions.

“Now if we see a patient that we think needs a checkup, we don’t even have to make an appointment. We can simply send them to radiology and within 20 minutes they can have their CT scan and come back to our clinic to discuss the results.

The device has been online at LHSC Teaching Hospital since April and is already seeing an average of four patients a day as the program ramps up, Agrawal said.

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During the exam, patients sit upright in a chair while the machine rotates around their head. A typical scan takes 30 seconds.

The MiniCat device means patients can get their imaging during the same visit as their assessment, saving time and money for those referred to LHSC Southwestern Ontario and beyond, a said Agrawal on Friday.

“We treat patients from Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay coming to London for treatment. We do all the cochlear implants for the region, as well as patients in Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula,” he said.

“That (CT imaging) was a huge bottleneck for us. We have patients coming into town who may have something wrong with their ear and we are scheduling a CT scan for them. They had a date two months later and were due back.

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The machine also exposes patients to less radiation than a typical CT scan and provides higher resolution images, LHSC head and neck surgeon Lorne Parnes said in a statement.

The equipment is about one-fifth the cost of a typical body CT scanner, which costs up to $1.5 million each, Agrawal said.

LHSC’s new MiniCat was funded by donors from the London Health Sciences Foundation, including a major contribution from former LHSC otology patient Tom Allison.

“I know firsthand the wait times to get a CT scan, and that wait seems unbearable,” Allison said in a statement. “My only hope for this gift was to make a difference for future patients in need of treatment.”

The pandemic has caused significant diagnostic imaging backlogs in the province. At the end of September, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office estimated a backlog of nearly 2.5 million diagnostic procedures, ranging from MRIs and CT scans to mammograms.

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While some ear, nose and throat patients – especially those with soft tissue conditions such as throat cancers – will still require traditional CT scans, the MiniCat will divert some patients from the usual CT scan queue, Agrawal said.

“It frees up points on our regular CT scanner. It helps the overall throughput of the hospital,” he said.

The machine is also used for medical research at LHSC, helping ear surgeons fit and customize cochlear implants – electronic devices that stimulate auditory nerves – in post-surgery patients.

“To do that, you need to have a high-resolution scanner like this MiniCat. Without the machine, we wouldn’t even have been able to continue this research,” says Agrawal.

“We can tune the frequencies like tuning a piano and help improve outcomes for our cochlear implant patients.”

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