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Advanced cancer-screening gear coming to Culpeper hospital
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Advanced cancer-screening gear coming to Culpeper hospital

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A new element of life-saving convenience is about to come to Culpeper.

Early this month, UVA Cancer Care will start examining people once a week at Culpeper Medical Center using a state-of-the-art, mobile PET/CT scanner. Hospital physicians hope the service will “go live” about April 9.

The all-white tractor-trailer unit will park outside the hospital, link with its computer network and allow specialists to do positron emission tomography and computed tomography scans on oncology patients and others.

Before, patients had to drive at least 45 minutes away to Gainesville, Charlottesville or elsewhere to have such imaging done as part of their cancer diagnosis, treatment or follow-up, Novant Health UVA Health System said.

“Having this resource is huge,” Dr. Pranav Patel, medical oncologist at Culpeper Medical Center, told the Star-Exponent. “It is a game-changer for us to be able to provide this care locally.”

Having to drive to the University of Virginia’s facilities in Charlottesville for that kind of examination is a real burden for many patients and their families, Patel, chief of Culpeper Medical Center’s Department of Medicine, said in an interview.

“Many of our patients are older folks in their 70s and 80s. They may not have the wherewithal to drive themselves or have family backup for transportation,” he said. “And we’re all going to be there at some point. Soon, this will be easy to do in their own backyard.”

The Culpeper hospital has had to refer patients elsewhere for at least seven years to receive such imaging services, Patel said. A mobile PET/CT scanner has been available in Gainesville, to the east of Culpeper in Prince William County, for years.

Now, Culpeper-area patients will get the same level of expert, experienced care as they would at U.Va., Patel said. Their scans will be read by nuclear-medicine physicians in Charlottesville, but patients won’t have to make the round trip, he said.

The UVA cancer subspecialty experts, who work with the Culpeper hospital’s teams, are world-class at what they do, a Novant Health UVA Health System spokeswoman said.

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Tapping UVA’s board-certified physicians to read these scans lends greater accuracy to the results, Patel said. Two years ago, Culpeper Medical Center started reading such scans with their remote colleagues through a joint venture with Novant, he said.

The Culpeper and Charlottesville experts work closely together for diagnosis, patient care and collaboration, Patel said. “That not only benefits our community team but also our main campus at UVA,” he said.

Combined together, PET and CT scanning can find inflamed areas within the human body or evidence of high cell turnover that may signal a cancer—and that could be missed with just a conventional CT scan, Patel said.

Physicians can use a CT unit for an initial consultation, but having a PET/CT unit can “help immensely” in determining whether a cancer is gone, or not, after treatment, he said.

Culpeper Medical Center physicians have been working to bring the PET/CT service to the community for at least two or three years, Patel said.

The Virginia Department of Health issued the required state certificate of public need for the device in January 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the project, he said.

Physically, no space was available at the Culpeper hospital’s main imaging center to build a new facility, Patel said. But with the mobile PET/CT scan unit, patients don’t need to come inside the Medical Center for an exam. The mobile unit—with its lead-lined walls—can park outside, like a camper, and serve people. A new concrete pad has been built outside the hospital in recent weeks to receive the unit.

Novant Health UVA Health System will provide the PET/CT services in partnership with Alliance Healthcare Radiology, a nationally recognized company for mobile imaging services.

The Culpeper hospital will share the mammoth, 18-wheel mobile scanner with Novant Health UVA Health System’s Lake Manassas Cancer Center in Gainesville.

Sharing a mobile unit helps spread its operating costs among two or three hospitals, Patel said.

This month, UVA Cancer Care is celebrating its 10th year at Culpeper Medical Center, he noted. Its presence in Culpeper has advanced the quality and level of cancer care in the community “by leaps and bounds,” Patel said.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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