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NWT patients’ diagnostic images unread for months after glitch

Around 1,500 diagnostic images of Northwest Territories patients were never sent to the right doctor following a software glitch earlier this year.

Health minister Glen Abernethy confirmed this morning that some X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds and similar scans were not properly transmitted to physicians for a period of four months between April and August this year.

Dr Jim Corkal, the territorial government’s chief clinical advisor, said those affected could include cancer patients, pregnant mothers and those suffering from pneumonia.

Abernethy told Moose FM that information from many of the 1,500 affected scans still “got to the patients in a timely manner, but not the way it was intended” – for example, if colleagues phoned through the relevant information.

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Abernethy added it’s not clear exactly how many patients’ scan data never made it through at all, thanks to the glitch. Nor could he say if any patients were denied urgent medical care as a result.

“It appears that most of them have been contacted in a normal timeline. But if it’s one or 100 that are missed, this is critical,” he said.

“People rely on the system to get the tests done in a timely manner and forward that information on. This is serious and I take it very seriously.”

‘Some were urgent and critical’

The Department of Health says the error came from a software upgrade which stopped some scans being sent by electronic fax to physicians who order them.

Not all scans were affected. Around 10,000 diagnostic images were ordered in the NWT in the four-month period, of which 1,500 relied on the digitized fax method.

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Since the issue was discovered on August 6, doctors have been urgently working through the backlogged scans and contacting affected patients.

“We’ve had physicians and practitioners working through the weekend and through last week looking through all 1,500 files,” said Abernethy.

“Up to half of them, the results were normal. A number were just off normal, and some were considered urgent and critical.

“We’ve been contacting all those people to let them know but, as it turns out, many of those people had in fact already been contacted. We’re double checking as we don’t want anybody to be missed.”

Any remaining patients should expect to hear from a physician in the next 36 hours. If you have concerns, contact your doctor.

We asked the health minister how it came to pass that this error lingered for four months before being discovered. In response, Abernethy said an external review had been ordered to look into what happened.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve asked for the review. I had the exact same question,” he said.

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The issue has now been fixed, although medical staff will continue to manually double-check that all scans have been sent as an interim measure.

Updated 10:47, August 18: This article has been updated to clarify that the system in question sends scans via digitized fax – a form of fax distributed via email – and not standard fax.

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