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NPR Show Spotlights Radiation, Uncomfortably

May 17, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Nuclear Medicine, Practice Management
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Medical imaging that involves radiation needs more regulation, more oversight, and more training for technicians, New York Times investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich told a national radio audience on Monday.

Bogdanich was the interview subject on the NPR show Fresh Air. He talked with host Terry Gross about his investigative series “The Radiation Boom,” which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. (It didn’t win, but Bogdanich already has two other Pulitzer Prizes and a share of a third, so perhaps he wasn’t too disappointed.)

In Times stories (not all of them part of the “Radiation Boom” series) that go back to June 2009, Bogdanich has reported on a variety of issues dealing with medical radiation. The first story focused on a doctor at a veterans’ hospital in Philadelphia who, while implanting radioactive seeds intended to treat prostate cancer, routinely missed the prostate. Overall, Bogdanich reported, the hospital’s cancer unit botched 92 of 116 cancer treatments over a two-year period.

He has also reported on major radiation overdoses for suspected stroke patients during CT scans, high radiation doses from cone-beam CT scans performed on children in dental offices, serious injuries caused by poor calibration or radiation leakage during stereotactic radiosurgery, unnecessary and unshielded full-body X-rays of premature babies—and, over and over, poor training and lax to nonexistent regulatory supervision and reporting requirements.

During the Fresh Air interview, he said:

Hospitals want more patients, and as soon as a new gee-whiz medical device comes out that is some lifesaving device, every hospital wants to get them as quickly as possible, and sometimes they move too quickly. They buy them, they install them, they don’t spend the kind of money necessary to train the staff and to develop the kind of protocols necessary to ensure that mistakes … are minimized.

Regulations, licensing requirements, dosage-reporting guidelines, training procedures, and rules for reporting medical errors vary from state to state, he said. Some states don’t require any licensing or training at all for technicians operating complex and potentially dangerous machines.

Speaking of the “Radiation Boom” series, Bogdanich said:

I think we made it clear that these are wonderful devices that save countless lives, and people need to get it when they need them, but they need to ask questions. People were not asking questions, and, frankly, doctors who were treating the patients were not giving the patients the information they needed.

Bogdanich argued on behalf of the Consistency, Accuracy, Responsibility and Excellence in Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy (CARE) bill, which the American Society of Radiologic Technologists has been pushing in Congress since 1999. The bill would establish minimum federal standards for technicians who perform medical imaging and deliver radiation therapy.

The reporter said he knew of no organized opposition to the bill or other major reason why it hasn’t passed. Congress, he said, just seems to have other priorities.

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