Man who waited 20 weeks for urgent MRI now has unsurvivable cancer after it spread through spine, organs

A man whose urgent MRI was not completed for 20 weeks now has unsurvivable cancer after it spread through his spine and organs. 

The Deputy Health and Disability Commissioner Dr Vanessa Caldwell found Te Whatu Ora Southern in breach of the code over the delay. 

The man had a history of cancerous melanoma and after an assessment by an orthopaedic surgeon regarding pain in his left leg in late 2021, the doctor requested an urgent MRI scan to check for any relapse of cancer.

The accepted practice at the time was for a patient to receive an MRI scan within 31 days of the request. However, in the man's case, the scan was not completed until 20 weeks after it was requested.

The scan showed metastatic cancer in the man's spine, which had caused spinal cord compression. 

"This delay meant further spread of the cancer through my spine and organs, resulting in the current situation whereby the cancer is now not survivable," the man said. 

Te Whatu Ora accepted the failure to complete the man's MRI scan within an acceptable timeframe indicated a systemic failure in its process, and on that basis agreed to be found in breach of  Right 4(1) of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights (the Code) for the delay.

In a release on Monday, Dr Caldwell said the unacceptable delay in carrying out the man's MRI scan, and the missed opportunity for earlier diagnosis and treatment of his cancer, was not care of an appropriate standard. 

Since the man's treatment Te Whatu Ora Southern has undertaken the following actions to improve its service: 

  • An additional MRI scanner has been installed at Dunedin Hospital (where the man received care), which has resulted in an improvement in wait times for urgent MRI scans, with the average wait time as of March 2023 being 4-6 weeks (down from 15-20 weeks at the time of the man's care). 
  • It has updated its 'Management of Referrals Radiology' policy so that staff have the necessary guidance to ensure appropriate management of urgent referrals. 
  • It is working with Te Aho o Te Kahu/Cancer Control Agency and Te Whatu Ora/Health New Zealand to explore a digital solution to improve tracking of the progress of cancer patients through their diagnosis, treatment, and surveillance activities. 

Dr Caldwell recommended that Te Whatu Ora Southern provide a written apology to the man.

She also requested Te Whatu Ora provide an update on the progress of the improvements and an update on its current wait times for an urgent MRI.