NORTH Cumbrian cancer patients have been sent to a hospital in Preston for urgent medical scans after their appointments at the Cumberland Infirmary were repeatedly cancelled.

One distressed patient had her scan appointment cancelled three times.

The private healthcare company providing the diagnostic service – Alliance Medical – has agreed to pay for a private ambulance to take the woman and her partner to the Royal Preston Hospital 80 miles away for her scan.

An investigation by The Cumberland News has confirmed that the PET-CT scans, which capture 3D images to identify the location of tumours, were cancelled because of problems with making the radioactive tracer dye – known as FDG - that is injected into patients for the procedure.

Doctors use the scans to plan surgery and other treatments. Both the NHS trust involved - North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust - and Alliance Medical have apologised.

The partner of one Carlisle patient said the woman, in her forties, was told that her cancer had recurred after she came through surgery in March and subsequent chemotherapy.

Her scan was originally scheduled for Tuesday, August 13 but it was then moved to Saturday. After that was also cancelled, the woman was offered a third appointment for 8.15am at the infirmary on Tuesday.

“They moved that to 3.30pm, then to 4.30pm, and then as we were arriving at the hospital car park at 4.15pm they cancelled that as well,” said the man, explaining that his partner was too unwell to endure returning for another possible appointment later that day.

“We feel totally frustrated,” he said. “My partner is in constant pain and, psychologically, this just makes things worse. We don’t blame anybody at the hospital and the staff have been absolutely fabulous.

“But these scans are a vital diagnostic tool.

“The doctors have a Monday meeting to plan my partner’s treatment and these cancellations mean their decisions are delayed. Her treatment is in limbo and you’d imagine that, potentially, the more the delays go on the less they can do.

“It’s very upsetting.

"Her doctors are concerned this is taking as long as it is.”

The man said no hospital manager had been in touch to offer direct support, though a doctor had asked his partner how she was coping. “It’s not acceptable,” continued the man.

“To have those machines sat there and not used seems like a total waste of money and it creates needless risk. I’d like to know why it’s happened.” He and his partner have formally complained to the hospital trust. In a phone conversation, a senior Alliance Medical manager apologised and promised a written explanation, he added.

Neither the trust nor Alliance Medical confirmed how many patients were affected but figures suggest it is likely to be at least 20, not all of them cancer patients. In the week before last, several of the 20 patients booked in for a scan failed to get one.

Alliance Medical had not revealed how many NHS trusts were affected, though the firm said that by yesterday the problem with making radioactive tracer was resolved.

A spokesman said: “We have recently experienced some temporary disruption to isotope supply to the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust for PET-CT scans. This is due to a manufacturing issue which began last week and is isolated to our radiopharmacy facility in Keele [in Staffordshire].

“We are working around the clock alongside the equipment manufacturers to implement a solution and are committed to restore production at Keele to full capacity as soon as possible.

“We understand the concern and worry that this can cause, and any affected patients are contacted to arrange new appointments and are scanned within an average of three days.”

He said the firm hired engineers to repair a temporary fault with the PET-CT scanner at The Cumberland Infirmary site after this also caused disruption for patients using the service, offered twice a week at the hospital.

“Where possible, we have provided patients with appointments at alternative locations such as Preston while these repairs are underway,” he said.

“Even during this challenging period, over 90 per cent of our patients wait fewer than seven days between initial referral and receiving the report for their scan. We are also utilising pre-agreed resilience arrangements with all other possible providers which helps to minimize any potential impact on patients.”

A spokeswoman for North Cumbrian University Hospitals said: “We are very concerned that there is currently a limited availability of -FDG. We understand this is due to production issues at Alliance Medical’s manufacturing sites.

“We first became aware of the issue on August 12 and we are liaising with Alliance Medical at the highest level to understand how this issue is being resolved.

“Around 20 patients a week are referred for scans, the majority of which are successfully completed. Where there have been issues with the supply of FDG an alternative scan is offered at Preston or are scheduled for the following week.

“We understand that this is causing distress and anxiety for our patients and we would like to apologise for this. We are offering support to those patients affected directly and if anyone is concerned please contact your consultant or our Patient Advice and Liaison service on 01228 814008.”

PET-CT scans provide detailed visual information about a person’s cancer. The scan takes a series of x-rays from all around the patient’s body and puts them together to create a three-dimensional image.

Alliance Medical said it recently invested more than £80m in 20 additional static scanning sites and expects to have “further manufacturing capacity” in the next 12 to 18 months.

More than 90 per cent of scan patients get their PET-CTscan report within seven days of their referral being made.

The radioactive tracer substance FDG, while harmless, has a half-life which means it degrades within hours and so must be produced on the day of use. Alliance Medical describes itself as “Europe’s leading independent provider of medical imaging services.”