Sask. mammogram bus key in addressing backlog

Mammography had been paused during the beginning of COVID-19, causing the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency to play catch-up.

The Saskatchewan Cancer Agency's mammogram bus.
The Saskatchewan Cancer Agency’s mammogram bus. Photo by Saskatchewan Cancer Agency

Saskatchewan’s mammogram bus has been chugging along to help fill the backlog in screening for breast cancer.

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Mammography had been paused during the beginning of COVID-19, causing the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency to play catch-up.

Part of these efforts include a bus that normally travels to rural and remote communities. However, it had to be used in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert to address backlogs there.

“It was very important and the bus played a part in providing that additional capacity,” said Kevin Wilson, the vice-president of population health, quality and research at the agency.

He said the bus completed 3,650 screenings from April to December 2021, which is more than double the 1,365 screenings that took place from April 2020 to March 2021.

“The bus has now gone back out to do its usual work to outlying areas to make it easier for clients in those areas to access mammography,” Wilson added.

However, the agency performed 20,356 mammograms between April 2020 to March 2021, which is a 43-per-cent decrease from the 35,677 performed during that same time period in 2019-20.

There has also been a backlog in the number of letters that are sent out to remind people of screening.

Wilson said as of Jan. 19 there were 1,500 letters in Regina and 2,500 in Saskatoon that have been delayed in being sent out.

In Prince Albert, there are 1,500 delayed letters, 1,700 delayed in Yorkton and 1,000 in Moose Jaw.

The metric helps the agency measure where it’s at in getting people screened, he said.

A screening unit inside the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency’s mammogram bus.
A screening unit inside the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency’s mammogram bus. Photo by Joel Cyr /Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.

Despite the backlog, Wilson said the agency has made progress.

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Earlier in the pandemic, for example, there were 11,000 delayed letters in Saskatoon and 3,000 in Regina. Many smaller communities have also caught up, he added.

“We’ve been working hard to continue to work down the backlog, or the invitations to our program that would have been in place,” Wilson said.

As long as they are available, he said, there have been additional staff working longer hours or on Saturdays to help alleviate the backlog.

However, he doesn’t yet know how long it will take to fully catch up.

“That certainly is dependent primarily on the availability of staff for technologists,” Wilson said. “That may become more challenging in this phase, but we work really closely with our partners at (the Saskatchewan Health Authority) to maximize the staff that are available.”

Dr. Carolyn Flegg, a diagnostic radiologist and partner with Associated Radiologists in Saskatoon, said there had been a slowdown during the beginning of the pandemic, but wait-times have since remained fairly reasonable.

She said anyone with possible breast cancer symptoms, like a lump, are fast tracked for a mammogram. They are usually screened within 72 hours, she said.

“They won’t wait long at all,” she said. “For regular referrals, we usually get them done within a couple of weeks of receiving them here in Saskatoon.”

However, wait-times in Prince Albert are about one month, Flegg added.

“It’s pretty on par with what we saw before the pandemic,” she said.

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Wilson said screenings are generally non-urgent and are focussed on early detection.

“It’s important for women to have regular mammograms and encourage that, but primarily it is healthy people coming for mammograms,” he said.

Flegg said even though working in health care during the pandemic has been a juggle at times, she encouraged people to get screened if they notice any symptoms.

She said it’s typical for people to feel like they would be putting a strain on the system given current challenges with COVID-19.

“The system is open and we’re functioning and we don’t want people to avoid getting care. We want people to be seen,” she said.

“If you’ve got something that has changed, is bothering you, or you’re sick, we want to know. We are here and would want to know sooner rather than later.”

jsimes@postmedia.com

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