04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Radiation Safety Concerns In The Medical Field

A recent NY Times article reported on overradiation at a number of institutions across the country. The article highlights some disturbing stories at a number of hospital and medical facilities including:

Some excerpts from the Times piece:

In New Jersey, 36 cancer patients at a veterans hospital in East Orange were overradiated -- and 20 more received substandard treatment -- by a medical team that lacked experience in using a machine that generated high-powered beams of radiation. The mistakes, which have not been publicly reported, continued for months because the hospital had no system in place to catch the errors.

In Louisiana, Landreaux A. Donaldson received 38 straight overdoses of radiation, each nearly twice the prescribed amount, while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. He was treated with a machine so new that the hospital made a miscalculation even with training instructors still on site.

In Texas, George Garst now wears two external bags -- one for urine and one for fecal matter -- because of severe radiation injuries he suffered after a medical physicist who said he was overworked failed to detect a mistake. The overdose was never reported to the authorities because rules did not require it.

The report asserts that many of these mistakes could have been caught had basic checking protocols been followed. In addition, the reporter purports that there is a growing realization among those who work with new technologies that "some safety procedures are outdated."

An online video includes copy that states "As medical radiation technology advances, a patchwork of regulations does not always protect patients from radiation injury."

This news report is very upsetting. From the time I started reading it and throughout the following days as I recounted the stories and the reporter's analysis in my head and with some of my colleagues, it remains troubling.

In the world of radiology, medical oncology and other fields of medicine where radiation plays a key role in diagnosis and treatment, safety must be top priority. First, it must be emphasized that these stories are of patients who received radiation therapy. The doses used for radiation therapy compared to the ionizing radiation exposure from a diagnostic imaging examination, e.g., conventional x-ray, CT, NM, etc., are significantly greater. The risks presented in this news story were associated with radiation therapy and are not to be equated with the risk of a diagnostic radiology examination. However, it is also not to downplay the dangers of ionizing radiation from diagnostic examinations but to keep it in perspective. Registered Technologists working with ionizing radiation and/or radioisotopes are trained and certified in most states to handle, administer and correctly dispose of these materials. As new technology and equipment that emits ionizing radiation becomes available, rigorous training is essential to ensure that there is complete understanding of how to properly utilize the new equipment and maximize its diagnostic and/or treatment power while protecting the patient.

Radiation can be very dangerous if not properly used. Its power must be appreciated by the users. Make sure you ask your physician and the technologist if he or she has been specifically trained and certified in the procedure or examination you are getting and with the equipment that is being used. Ask them about radiation levels involved in the imaging study, query them on repeat rates and whether they or the facility institution has ever been cited for misuse of radiation.

All of these questions are valid and an important part of protecting yourself during a radiation therapy session or even a diagnostic examination that uses ionizing radiation. While you may upset your practitioner with your questions, it will make them aware that you are informed and you just want to be sure that they are also.