EMERGENCY talks are being held to try to avoid an orthopaedic crisis in Darlington and the dales.

Health chiefs fear an outpatient bottleneck could arise after fast track GP cash for MRI scans ran out at the end of October.

Demand for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans has been so high that a year's funding has been soaked up in just six months.

From November 2, doctors across the area were told to stop direct referrals and return to the old system of referral through an orthopaedic consultant.

A top-level investigation is now under way to find out why the situation deteriorated so quickly and why levels rose during the normally quiet summer months.

By the end of August more than half of Darlington's £80,877 MRI budget had been used up.

Scan operators Lodestone Patient Care, formerly Health South, based at the town's Memorial hospital, informed Darlington primary care group that a disaster was looming if current levels prevailed.

By October, 440 patients had been scanned, pushing the budget to breaking point and sparking the PCG ban on further fast track appointments.

The exhausted £35,000 dales budget received a £19,000 boost from its PCG in September to ensure booked patients would be scanned. Overall, dales doctors had referred 417 patients by October.

However, all patients have been assured that referrals made before November will go ahead as booked.

Ms Sarah Holdsworth, health services manager for the Dales, Darlington and Sedgefield PCGs, told the D&S Times: " We are in discussions with the trusts and Lodestone to discover the root of the problem, but all patients referred for a scan before November will get one.

"We are also trying to identify spare resources to offset any backlash this ban may have on orthopaedic outpatient waiting times."

Patients seeking a scan via a consultant are now likely to wait three months before an appointment is made. GP referrals took between two to three weeks.

Ms Holdsworth added: "Year-on-year GP referrals have increased but this year it has been phenomenal.

"We obviously need to find out why this happened to avoid it next year.

"The problem with freeing up the system in one place is that it inevitably puts pressure elsewhere.

"More patient scans leads to more GP appointments which can then lead to outpatient and even inpatient dates being set.

"Resources are limited which causes bottlenecks and disappointments for GPs and patients.

"Next year's PCG MRI budget will include an uplift but is unlikely to be doubled, which is why we need to sort this out quickly."