Several areas of the world are currently feeling the effects of a global dye shortage. A shortage of contrast dye used for diagnostic imaging such as computed tomography (CT) scans, gastrointestinal imaging, angiograms and cardiac catheterisations is expected to delay various procedures worldwide.

The dye is an iodine-based contrast dye, and it is usually injected into a patient’s bloodstream to highlight various structures on scans. The shortage began due to the temporary closure of GE Healthcare’s Shanghai plant. The plant was forced to close because of Covid-19 lockdowns in China, but another GE Healthcare plant in Cork, Ireland, increased production with the hope to cover the Shanghai plant’s losses.

The GE Healthcare plant in Shanghai has recently reopened at 60% capacity and expects to work at 100% by mid-June, but the dye shortage is still an issue in many hospitals. In addition, despite the plant reopening, experts do not expect the dye supply to reach hospitals for several more weeks.

While it is not clear exactly how widespread the issue is or how many people will be affected, some hospitals have begun to cancel certain procedures. The American Hospital Association (AHA) estimates that the number of patients who have already had scans delayed is well into the thousands. Hospitals have started to prioritise CT scans and cardiac angiograms for emergency situations such as major trauma, possible strokes and other cardiac issues, bowel blockages, and critical care patients.

GE Healthcare is one of only four companies that supply iodine-based contrast agents. The company has four plants, the Shanghai plant being its largest. Other manufacturers and plants have not been able to keep up with the demand since the closure and subsequent delays of the Shanghai plant. The AHA estimates that about half of the hospitals in the US rely on GE Healthcare’s contrast dye, and that said hospitals perform approximately 385,000 scans each week (20 million a year).

While some diagnostic scans and procedures are impacted by the dye shortage, other exams that use different contrast agents, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and X-rays, have not been affected. As a result, many hospitals and facilities are trying to use alternate procedures in an effort to save dye for emergency situations, while also preventing delays and cancellations.

By switching procedures, however, healthcare professionals will be using diagnostic or treatment techniques that are not ideal for the patient’s situation. As a result, this could cause a delayed diagnosis or even a misdiagnosis, which could cause further issues down the line. CT scans are commonly used among cancer patients, as they can not only assist in the diagnoses of various types of cancer, but can also assist in treatment by assessing whether cancer has come back.

Shortages in the medical device industry have been rampant over the last couple of years, largely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts worldwide are hoping to find a solution to help ease these shortages; some ideas include expanding the sources of the supply chain, such as by opening new plants in other areas of the world, or reassessing how medical devices are transported and ensuring those ports are secure.