LBH radiographers Dough Thompson and Dean Hunt view the results of an MRI scan

The names Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) hardly roll off the tongue, nor will they be household words to those not needing such high-level diagnostics. But for many patients this suite of offerings at Lismore Base Hospital (LBH) is now a vital part of the care regime.

Barely a year old the hospital’s enhanced imaging department is already regarded as the technological leader in regional/rural NSW, making it one of the best in Australia.

So far up to 800 patients have received PET scans, according to the department’s manager, Denys Wynn, while Senior Nuclear Medicine Technologist Andrew Dixon was keen to show GPSpeak the difference between a 2D nuclear bone scan and the extraordinary 3D definition offered by the $3M PET equipment.

That there is a ‘wow’ factor is not only evident to the lay observer but to specialists in the field: later in the day I chanced across a leading North Coast radiologist who described the facility in glowing terms.

While the majority of patients are being investigated for cancers, the system is also “a brilliant tool in looking for infections, and myocardial viability,” Andrew explained.

As the LBH patient information leaflet says, “PET is an advanced molecular imaging procedure which can identify metabolic activity within the body.” Following the intravenous introduction of FDG [Fluorodeoxyglucose], the amount of activity taken up by the organs indicates whether the function of that organ is normal or abnormal, thus allowing for the early detection of disease.

CT scanning, done as part of the procedure, shows exactly where the FDG has been taken up by the body.

MRI, which uses a magnetic field and radio waves, rather than a nuclear process, to see inside the body, is being increasingly accessed directly by GPs for adult patients (>16 y.o) with a range of suspected neurological and muscular skeletal conditions, including unexplained seizures, chronic headaches, cervical spine problems and knee/ACL injury.

These are Medicare-rebatable items, while other scans can be performed on a fee for service basis.

Around ten patients a day, ranging from elderly outpatients to neonates born in LBH, are serviced by the MRI facility. Although the noise of the procedure can be somewhat harrowing, the information obtained is vital to patients’ ongoing care.

GPs linked to the PACS storage system have direct access to the scan results, otherwise patients can be given a takeaway CD. The results of PET/CT scans are provided to the relevant specialists, or to staff clinicians in the case of inpatients.

LBH’s state-of-the-art imaging department is more than a clinical success: without the commitment of the local community, medical staff and political representatives, and other advocates, it would never have happened.

Financial contributions ranged from the Ballina branch of the Scopes Club of Australia ($10,500) to the Federal and State governments ($13M and $3.3M respectively), making it a true partnership.

At the sod-turning in late 2011, NNSW LHD Chief Executive Chris Crawford said, “This takes the hospital to the next level.”

One year later, in December 2012, the purpose-built facility was opened, with Scopes Ballina President Leonie Dahl saying, “We have members and their families with cancer and they’d have to travel for treatment and testing… the community pushed for it and made it happen.”

LBH medical imaging is further proof (think, the radiation oncology unit, cardiac cath lab, and more) that ‘Better health care, closer to home’ is no longer a political platitude, but a reality that is prolonging local lives and improving patients’ wellbeing.