A shortage of medical isotopes has doctors across the U.S. postponing important tests, or switching to costlier, time consuming alternatives.
The shortage comes as a result of the shutdown of the Chalk River facility in Ontario, Canada in May. The Petten facility in the Netherlands closed for four weeks to conduct routine maintenance. Together the reactors produce 70 percent of the world‘s medical isotopes.
Medical isotopes are used in an array of tests, such as detecting cancer‘s spread to bones and diagnosing heart disease. The medical isotopes, specifically, technetium-99, are used in nuclear medicine imaging tests.
After a patient is given a dose, the isotopes give off energy within the body, giving doctors an accurate image of the body part they are examining. Technetium-99 has an extremely short lifespan and degrades in the human body within a day, making it safe and easy to use.
Hospitals across the nation have been postponing tests and sometimes rationing the number of tests administered each day.
Reuters reports that some doctors have switched to positron emission tomography scans, known as PET scans. The problem with these scans is that they are not covered by Medicare.
At UCD Medical Center, doctors have coped with the shortage of technetium by instead using thallium, although this alternative has it setbacks. Testing with thallium requires more time, so doctors can only do a fraction what they were once capable of with technetium.
“This is having an impact on cost-effective care, effective care and timeliness of care. We’re all worried about it,“ said Dr. David Shelton, chief of nuclear medicine at UCDMC, to The Sacramento Bee.
The Society of Nuclear Medicine stated in a press release that they recognize that the shortage of medical isotopes could cause delays on tests, thus putting patients in unnecessary risk for diseases or conditions that can be treated with early detection.
An e-mail survey by SNM found that 91 percent of its 375 members, which includes doctors and technicians across the nation, have felt the impact of the isotope shortage.
Robert Atcher, former president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, said, “About 8 million of our studies are imperiled because that reactor is offline.“
Furthermore, all the reactors have aged since they were built. The reactor in Canada is 52 years old. Repairs must be made to the reactors, which would mean more reactors going offline in the future.
“We’re really scrambling to figure out a way to solve this problem in the short term,“ said Atcher.
The recent events have caused some in the medical field to call for the establishment of a U.S. based facility capable of producing the isotopes as a long term solution.
A coalition of US nuclear medicine and non-proliferation experts sent a letter to Congress in June calling for domestic production. The Obama administration set aside $120 million over four years to develop production of medical isotopes within the U.S.
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