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Tim R. Williams M.D. Headshot

Target Safely

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In her post of February 17th, Dr. Helene Pavlov raises the right issues regarding radiation oncology, especially when it comes to the questions that patients should ask their physicians and technicians if they are receiving radiation as part of cancer treatment. Communications during treatment, any treatment is critical. Patients should and must be part of the treatment plan.

Like Dr. Pavlov, I found the the series of articles in The New York Times to be alarming. Fortunately, the errors chronicled are far from typical. Radiation oncologists, together with our treatment teams made up of physicists, nurses, radiation therapists and dosimetrists, have many safety measures and protections built into our systems to avoid errors. Errors like the ones described in these articles are extremely rare. However, any error is too many and we as an organization are working find ways to eliminate them.

In the wake of the revelations in the articles, the Board of Directors of the American Society of Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) of which I am Chairman, developed a six-point Target Safely plan to enhance patient safety still further. Like the courageous Mr. Scott Jerome-Parks, who was featured in one of the stories, it is our hope that from this tragedy will emerge still greater safety measures, and that no other family endure what his has endured.

I also hope that through this program we can maintain public confidence in radiation oncology, an extremely valuable and cost-effective treatment that allows many cancer patients to beat their disease while avoiding invasive treatments. Advances are being made frequently to make the treatments we provide safer and more effective.

ASTRO's Target Safely plan:

  1. Work to create a national database for the reporting of medical errors;
  2. Advocate for new and expanded federal initiatives to help protect patients from radiation errors; support the immediate passage of the Consistency, Accuracy, Responsibility and Excellence in Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy ("CARE") Act, which among other things requires national standards for radiation therapy treatment team members;
  3. Work with cancer support organizations to help cancer patients and their families know what to ask their doctors when radiation is a possible treatment option;
  4. Enhance the radiation oncology practice accreditation program, and develop additional accreditation classes specifically addressing new technologies;
  5. Expand our educational training programs to include an intensive focus on quality assurance and safety;
  6. Accelerate an ongoing effort that seeks to ensure device manufacturers can transfer treatment information from one machine to another seamlessly to reduce the chance of a medical error.

Facing a cancer diagnosis is one of life's most difficult challenges. We are concerned that patients who read these articles may be frightened and decide to forgo the life-saving treatments they most need.

My hope therefore, is that patients across the country who have read the stories, or who have heard about them, will recognize these incidents for what they are - extremely rare preventable human errors - and that these reports will not dissuade patients who need radiation therapy from receiving important and life-saving treatments.

We want patients to learn more about the risks and benefits of radiation treatment and we encourage them to talk with their doctors, keeping in mind the tremendous promise for cancer patients that have come through technological advances in radiation treatment.

As advocates for high quality care, we are taking steps to improve safety and quality while continuing to provide a life saving treatment that millions of Americans receive every year resulting in a longer life.

We look forward to working with practitioners, like Dr. Pavlov, patients, and regulatory officials to advance our plan to improve safety.

For more information on radiation oncology visit www.RTanswers.com

Dr. Williams is Medical Director of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Eugene M. and Christine E. Lynn Cancer Institute at Boca Raton Community Hospital in Florida.

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