The use of radiation therapy for cancer treatment is designed to kill cancer cells and stop the cancer from spreading. It is a specific and exact therapy where an external beam is directed to the site of the cancer by a machine called a linear accelerator. The beam is precise in terms of the amount of dose sent to specific areas on the human body for treatment.
Over radiation occurs when the patient gets more than the prescribed dose of radiation over a period of time. The results for over radiated patients even in seemingly small doses weakens and kills healthy tissue causing skin and organ damage.
In a remarkable article by Josh Goldstein of the Philadelphia Inquirer it was reported last week that the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) has publicly revealed that on January 21, 2010 a man being treated for prostate cancer received radioactive seeds, a similar therapy to that of a linear accelerator, which were incorrectly implanted outside of the intended target site. Similarly, the Department of Veterans Affairs in December 2009 apologized for a prostate-cancer program where veterans were over radiated for six years at its main Philadelphia VA Hospital via the same method as in the HUP case.
These are not isolated events. In a lawsuit against the Melbourne Internal Medicine Associates, a cancer clinic in Melbourne, Florida, it is alleged that doctors put patients at risk through poor safety procedures as well as lack of oversight of technicians, and then tried to cover up their mistakes. Not only that, but the lawsuit further alleges that the clinic fraudulently over billed Medicare from 2003 through 2008 for the over use of the high tech and highly reimbursed radiation treatments. The Florida suit was started by a “whistle blower,” a Fred Fangman, the cancer center’s former director of radiation oncology. Federal prosecutors joined in the suit.
Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times has been following this issue. His article dated January 26, 2010 entitled “The Radiation Boom-As Technology Surges, Radiation Safeguards Lag” reports the following.
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.
Lorraine Raymond, a radiation therapist, raised concerns about overradiation in the treatment of Frederick Stein at a Veterans Affairs hospital in New Jersey in 2006.
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.
These mistakes and the failure of hospitals to quickly identify them offer a rare look into the vulnerability of patient safeguards at a time when increasingly complex, computer-controlled devices are fundamentally changing medical radiation, delivering higher doses in less time with greater precision than ever before.