November 3, 2013

Urologists Who Own Radiation Equipment Use it More … and Probably Unnecessarily

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about urologists who, according to clinical guidelines, use too much radiation to treat prostate cancer pain. Here’s some related have-you-no-shame prostate cancer news brought to you by your local urologist.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, (NEJM) an awful lot of urologists are making decisions about treatment for their prostate cancer patients based on whether or not they own intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) facilities. One-third of men whose doctors own such equipment get that therapy for about $35,000 per treatment course. But before they were financially invested in radiation equipment, the same doctors prescribed that therapy for only 13 of 100 of their patients.

As discussed in Bloomberg Businessweek.com, prostate cancer is the most common tumor diagnosed in the U.S.; nearly 240,000 men will get a diagnosis of prostate cancer this year. As we’ve blogged often (here and here), a diagnosis of prostate cancer presents a complicated scenario; the range of appropriate treatment moves from watchful waiting (no intervention unless and until the pathology changes in certain ways) to hormone therapy to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. As Businessweek summarizes, “While only about 12%, or 29,270 men, will die from it this year, all will have to decide how, and whether, they want to treat the cancer.”

They shouldn’t have to do so through the filter of a physician who can line his or her pockets if one therapy is chosen over another.

The men treated with radiation in the NEJM study were newly diagnosed. They were at low risk of dire consequences because their cancer hadn’t spread. The 10-year survival rate for all prostate cancer is 98%, and for many people with the study subjects’ diagnosis, watchful waiting is appropriate—not radiation.

Jean Mitchell, the author of the report and a professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., compared the use of the radiation therapy among urologists before and after they acquired the $2 million machines for their practices. She studied use of the technology among doctors who didn’t own it, and urologists at 11 National Comprehensive Cancer Network centers, the country’s gold standard of care.

Analyzing claims data from Medicare, Mitchell found that urologists who didn’t own the equipment prescribed use of it for more than 15 in 100 of their patients in 2010, compared with about 14 in 100 five years earlier. Among the NCCN, the ratio was the same for both years—about 8 in 100. But among docs who began to refer patients to treatment facilities in which they had a new ownership interest, it was 44 in 100.

In an interview with Businessweek, Mitchell said, “The patients are going to do what their physician tells them to do. The patient becomes almost like an ATM machine, with the doctor extracting as much revenue as they can.”

A urologists’ association spokesman said the doctors who own radiation oncology equipment use the technology appropriately. Would you expect anything different?

As Businessweek notes, physicians aren’t allowed to refer their patients for treatment in facilities they own because of the financial conflict of interest. But for patients’ convenience, radiation, as well as some other in-office “ancillary” services such as blood work and X-rays, are exempted from that law. Why radiation, which is a treatment and not an ancillary service, was exempted is not clear, Mitchell told the news outfit.

We’ve outlined the harms of overtreatment and those of radiation. The practitioner/owner scenario has great potential to harm patients from both.

Mitchell’s study found that doctors who owned the IMRT were treating men 80 and older just as aggressively as younger men with early stage prostate cancer. While prostate cancer usually grows slowly, the side effects of radiation (erection and urinary problems, for example) can be immediate. So using this treatment on older patients opens the door for them to experience harm and no benefit.

Medicine is not immune to greed: Mitchell’s study, Businessweek notes, supports similar findings with other forms of self-referral. Some urologists have pathology labs within their practices, giving themselves more business by biopsy. We’ve noted other medical specialties with physician-owners who line their pockets primarily because they can.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer, and the urologist advises radiation treatment, ask why it is appropriate; what results are expected, and how soon; what the risks are; and … who owns the facility where the treatment is recommended to occur.

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October 22, 2013

Too Many Doctors Use Too Much Radiation to Treat Prostate Cancer Pain

Although radiation can be a vital diagnostic tool and a life-saving cancer treatment, its dangers are well-documented (see our backgrounder on radiation overdose injuries).

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that doctors might be using radiation therapy too often for patients with advanced-stage prostate cancer. That puts them at risk of normal cell damage, skin irritation, diarrhea, bleeding and other problems. It also adds to the cost of their treatment.

Radiation therapy is prescribed to treat pain in patients whose prostate cancer has spread to their bones. This intervention is not for improving chances of survival in these advanced-stage cases, only to address severe pain. Radiation treatment of 10 sessions or more is recommended only in fewer than 10% of cases, and only if the patient’s cancer also might have spread to nearby soft tissue.

As discussed on AboutLawsuits.com, the researchers found that very few prostate cancer patients receive only one radiation treatment to reduce pain; more than half of the patients they studied got more than 10 treatments.

Radiation also is prescribed to treat pain caused by other kinds of cancer that have spread to the bones in advanced stages. But researchers aren’t certain if a single session is used appropriately in those situations.

The study analyzed Medicare claims from more than 3,000 males who underwent radiation therapy from 2006 to 2009. Only 3 in 100 of the prostate cancer patients got a single session of palliative radiotherapy. (“Palliative” means easing the effects of a condition, not treating or resolving it.) But more than half of the study’s prostate cancer patients got more than 10 radiation treatments.

The cost for a single treatment averaged $1,900; it was $5,000 for 10 or more treatments.

According to AboutLawsuits, previous studies found that the benefits of radiotherapy for pain relief were no greater for multiple sessions than they were for only one if the patient’s bone metastasis was uncomplicated. Those studies concluded that one treatment typically is sufficient to provide the maximum pain relief possible.

So why aren’t those results reflected in common practice?

In some cases, the researchers speculate, doctors might be worried about pain recurring after only a single treatment. Some doctors might not be aware of the previous research on radiotherapy. Some might be financially motivated, because they’re paid per treatment.

Researchers say that single treatments often are better for the patient’s quality of life, and should be standard care. If your doctor recommends radiation therapy for prostate cancer pain, discuss the benefits and risks of single versus multiple treatments. Get a second opinion if you’re not convinced that the best practice for your situation is more than one treatment.

Learn more about radiation therapy from the National Cancer Institute’s fact sheet.

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March 27, 2012

Radiation Treatment for Some Breast Cancer Patients Is Outdated

Old habits die hard, and in this regard the medical profession is no different from any other. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine were surprised, though, at the results of their study showing that despite the fact that radiation has limited benefit for some older women with breast cancer, the treatment is still being prescribed.

A large clinical trial conducted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) concluded that radiation for some women older than 70 with early stage, low-risk breast cancer offered limited benefit. So significant was the 2004 NCI trial that breast cancer treatment guidelines were changed to place radiation therapy in the “optional” category for these patients.

But the Yale researchers found that in the years following implementation of the new guidelines, there has been minimal change in the clinical care of older women with breast cancer. Their report was published in the March Journal of Clinical Oncology along with an editorial echoing our feeling that the perpetual motion treatment machine needs to be overhauled.

"[T]he medical community may react differently to withholding a treatment than to adding a new treatment,” it read. “Adding a new treatment with the possibility of improving patient outcomes is likely more motivating than the ability to omit a treatment without harm."

“… Some older women with breast cancer are clearly being overtreated. Offering radiation therapy to a woman with a good-prognosis tumor and a life expectancy of less than five years does not seem indicated, yet more than 40 percent of such women were treated with radiation. These women were at risk for unnecessary adverse effects, inconvenience of treatment and possibly increased personal costs for a treatment that was unlikely to offer them any benefit.”

The complication, as the editorial points out, is that identifying patients unlikely to survive five years is tricky. Still, there must be a greater acceptance that “The cost of whole-breast irradiation is more than $7,000 per patient, and the benefit in this group of patients is small. In our current health-care system, physicians are incentivized to favor treatment over no treatment, particularly when either option is considered appropriate."

Medicare beneficiaries diagnosed with early stage breast cancer were studied before and after the large NCI clinical trial was published. Nearly 8 in 10 patients received radiation before the study, and 3 in 4 received it after.

Even among the oldest women (85-94 years), the use of radiation decreased only four percentage points, from 37 percent before the study to 33 percent after.

Typically, older women with early stage breast cancer receive breast-conserving surgery followed by radiation therapy. The latter is designed to reduce recurrence of the disease. But many older women have less aggressive tumors; they are at lower risk for tumor recurrence.

“Clinical trials are considered the gold standard of medical research and in this case the trial was influential enough to lead to a change in treatment guidelines,” said Yale’s lead author. “We expected it to have more of an impact on clinical care at the bedside.”

It’s time to for this proven theory to be put into practice. As the researchers noted, the U.S. government invested more than $1 billion in comparative effectiveness research as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The point of such efforts, which we’ve discussed before, is to choose the most effective, cost-efficient treatments for a given disorder; they’re meant to overrule the default of “just in case” treatments.

“Our societal interest in funding this type of research is appropriate,” Yale’s researchers concluded, “and the need is great, but we must ensure that the results of such research extend beyond the journal page and are actually incorporated into clinical decision-making.”

To learn more about breast cancer treatment, see our guide.

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October 30, 2011

Annual Chest X-Rays Don't Help Smokers Beat Lung Cancer

A new study might add to the perception that U.S. medical care is uncontrollably expensive thanks in part to unnecessary tests. “Screening by Chest Radiograph and Lung Cancer Mortality" concludes that people who have an annual chest X-ray do not have a significantly lower mortality rate than people who don’t.

The study, whose lung data are part of a larger investigation into cancers of the prostate, colon/rectum and ovaries, examined people who were given either annual chest X-rays (chest radiography) or standard medical care without screening. In the 13 years’ of the study, 1,696 lung cancers were detected in chest radiograph group and 1,620 lung cancers in the control group. The radiograph group reported 1,213 lung cancer deaths, and 1,230 in the control group.

The results weren’t really a surprise; researchers said the study confirmed expectations rather than setting new ones.

Some healthy patients believe that safeguarding their good fortune means having any screening that can yield information. Often their physicians accommodate them out of an abundance of caution, a desire to please the customer or a fear (usually irrational) of being sued if they are perceived to have practiced poor medicine.

But as with recent guidelines announced by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) about Pap tests, mammograms and prostate-specific antigen tests, sometimes a test, especially for generally healthy people, serves little purpose other than addressing professional insecurity and reducing one’s bank account. And in the task force cases, it can cause harmful side effects.

A smoker or someone with a family history of lung cancer might not qualify as someone who can ignore advice to get screened. But now, the best practice for people at risk for lung disorders might not be a chest X-ray. The recent National Lung Screening Trial concluded that early detection of lung cancer from a spiral CT scan reduced the risk of mortality.

A spiral CT uses X-rays to generate multiple images of the entire chest; a standard chest X-ray generates a single image of the entire chest in which parts of the anatomy overlie one another.

The National Cancer Institute study involved current and former smokers, and compared a CT scan group with a chest X-ray group, not people with no known lung problems or those who hadn’t been screened at all. Still, the best way to diagnose lung cancer doesn’t seem to be with a chest X-ray, and unless you’re having a respiratory issue, you don’t need one as part of your annual physical exam.

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March 8, 2011

The Coming Cancer Epidemic from Overuse of CT Scans

The medical community is waking up to an enormous problem with radiation – mainly X-rays and CT scans — used to diagnose disease and injury. Patients are getting too much radiation, and the excess itself causes injuries, many years down the road, in a big uptick in the risk of cancer.

Even a “routine” CT scan of the abdomen, ordered thousands of times every day in the United States for patients with belly pain, carries a large risk of downstream cancer, just from that single scan.

Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, of the University of California San Francisco, estimates a 20-year-old woman who undergoes a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis has a one in 250 chance over her lifetime of getting cancer just from that single dose of radiation. This number was in a talk she gave recently at UCSF, as reported by her colleague Bob Wachter, MD, a patient safety expert at UCSF.

More scary statistics are in two articles Dr. Smith-Bindman and her colleagues published in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2009. There, they estimated that a single CT scan of the heart’s arteries (called a CT coronary angiogram, and promoted as being safer than the usual test called a cardiac catheterization) would cause cancer in one in 270 women and one in 600 men who underwent the test at age 40.

One problem is a huge range in the amount of radiation used at different facilities. Dr. Smith-Bindman’s group found a 13-fold variation from the lowest to the highest radiation exposure between scanners running the exact same imaging study.

She blames lax regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and lack of aggressive self-regulation by the medical physicists, working in hospitals, who are supposed to protect patients.

Most patients have no idea of the amount of radiation in one CT scan. It’s estimated to be about 200,000 times more than the radiation you get from going through an airport whole-body scanner, or about 450 times more than a simple chest X-ray.

Once people start to appreciate the risk, they realize that the pretty pictures produces by CT scans can have a very expensive cost down the road. It's something to remember the next time you see a billboard advertising “whole body scans” for healthy checkups, or “virtual colonoscopies” (to pick two examples of the heavily hyped types of CT scans now available).

Article first published as The Coming Cancer Epidemic from Overuse of CT Scans on Technorati.

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March 1, 2011

Doctor who botched prostate cancer brachytherapy procedures at VA hospital sanctioned

A physician who gave nearly 100 veterans with prostate cancer incorrect doses of radiation has been sanctioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The errors involved the incorrect placement of iodine-125 seeds in patients to treat prostate cancer.

Out of 116 such brachytherapy procedures performed at the facility between 2002 and 2008, the VA reported that 97 were carried out incorrectly. The NRC investigation found that Dr. Gary Kao, a radiation oncologist at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia, took part in 91 of the 97 incorrect procedures. In several cases, the incorrect doses were caused by Kao having implanted the seeds in nearby organs or surrounding tissue.

As a result, the NRC ruled that Kao cannot take part in agency-related activities without undergoing more training. The NRC also issued a separate order requiring Gregory Desobry, a medical physicist who worked at the same facility, to notify the agency if he accepts employment in that capacity involving NRC-regulated activities within 20 days of beginning such work. Last year, the NRC fined the Philadelphia VA hospital $227,500 over the incidents.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

To view a copy of the NRC decision, click here.

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February 17, 2011

Study casts doubt on effectiveness of routine lymph node removal in some women with early breast cancer

Many women with early breast cancer do not need to have their armpit lymph nodes removed, according to a new study. Currently, this painful procedure has long been routine, as physicians believed it would prolong women’s lives by keeping the cancer from spreading or coming back. However, the study shows that removing the cancerous lymph nodes is unnecessary when women receive chemotherapy and radiation, which wipes out most of the disease in the nodes.

The study indicates that for about 20% of women (40,000 women a year in the U.S.), the removal of the cancerous lymph nodes doesn’t (a) alter the treatment plan for the patient; (b) improve survival rates; or (c) make the cancer less likely to recur. And it has a downside, since it can cause complications like infection and lymphedema, a chronic swelling in the arm.

Experts say that the new findings, combined with similar ones from earlier studies, should change medical practice for many patients. However, they warn that change may come slowly because the notion that the nodes must be removed is very deeply ingrained.

The current approach to surgical treatment of breast cancer is to cut out obvious tumors — because lumps big enough to detect may be too dense for drugs and radiation to destroy — and to use radiation and chemotherapy to wipe out microscopic disease in other places. Until now, physicians believed that even microscopic disease in the lymph nodes should be cut out to improve the odds of survival.

The new results do not apply to all patients, only to women whose disease and treatment meet the criteria in the study, which were:

Early tumors at clinical stage T1 or T2 (i.e. less than two inches across).

Biopsies of one or two armpit nodes found cancer, but the nodes were not enlarged enough to be felt during an exam, and the cancer had not spread anywhere else.

The women had lumpectomies, and most also had radiation to the entire breast, and chemotherapy or hormone-blocking drugs, or both.

The study included 891 patients with their median age in the mid-50s. After an initial "sentinel" node biopsy, the women were assigned at random to have 10 or more additional nodes removed, or to leave the nodes alone. In 27 percent of the women who had additional nodes removed, those nodes were cancerous. But over time, the two groups had no difference in survival: more than 90 percent survived at least five years. Recurrence rates in the armpit were also similar, less than 1 percent.

Dr. Grant W. Carlson, a professor of surgery at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, who authored an editorial that accompanied the study, said that by routinely taking out many nodes, “I have a feeling we’ve been doing a lot of harm.”

Source: The New York Times

You can read an abstract of the study here.

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December 29, 2010

Radiation Therapy Malpractice: A Deadly Combination of Errors

Why do patients who need focused, precise doses of radiation get walloped with huge overdoses that cause serious and even fatal injuries? A deadly combination of non-user-friendly radiation equipment, incompatible software when machines from different manufacturers are cobbled together, user error by the technicians administering the radiation, and lax regulation by federal authorities: All these are major issues in the ongoing expose by the New York Times of malpractice issues in radiation therapy.

In the latest installment, the team led by reporter Walt Bogdanich focuses on linear accelerators, machines that originally were intended to give broad-beam radiation doses to large swaths of the body, but now are increasingly modified to deliver what are supposed to be precise, focused radiation beams. The therapy is called stereotactic radiosurgery, and it allows hospitals who lack the more expensive competitor device, gamma knife surgery, to compete for radiation therapy business when the patient needs a very focused, intense dose to sensitive tissue -- such as a nerve deep in the brain.

But without proper setup, and without an easy way to see when the machine's beam has not been focused properly, tragedies can happen, as the reporters document.

One issue that this blog has focused on in other contexts with medical devices: The lack of a mandatory public registry to gather prompt reports of injuries and errors so that problems can be nipped in the bud rather than injuring patient after patient. The society of radiation oncologists is now asking for the creation of such a registry by the Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA lacks legal authority to force anyone other than a manufacturer to make a report.

How can patients protect themselves? Make sure the radiation unit you go to is well established, not brand new, and that the technicians are certified in the field of medical physics. More tips can be found in our previous article on the subject here.

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April 8, 2010

FDA Tightens Safety Rules for Radiation Therapy Machines

The Food and Drug Administration has canceled its policy of giving rubber-stamp approval to marketing of powerful new radiation therapy equipment like linear accelerators. From now on, the manufacturer of the machine is going to have to prove the equipment has proper safety checks to prevent dangerous overdoses of radiation to patients.

The New York Times ran a series in January 2010 that exposed some horrific tragedies that occurred, particularly when hospitals rushed into operation new and complicated equipment without thorough safety checks and training of technicians. The series also showed that the equipment often lacked simple fail-safe devices such as a way of preventing the machine from delivering a walloping overdose of radiation even if one had been inadvertently programmed by a technician.

But since the FDA only has power over manufacturers and not over hospitals themselves, it still will be possible for poorly trained technicians to cause errors that hurt patients by either delivering overdoses or underdoses of radiation.

In a follow-up article, the New York Times' Walt Bogdanich quotes Dr. Howard I. Amols, chief of clinical physics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, as saying the more serious problems stem from shortcomings in staffing, personnel competency and hospital quality assurance programs:

“I’d also caution that however commendable tougher standards for premarket approval of software may be, its not clear that F.D.A. has the expertise to police this,” Dr. Amols said. “In fact, I’m not sure anybody does. That’s one of the big problems with software. It comes down to a qualified user recognizing that something is amiss.”

While the government regulators are getting their act together, my advice for patients is to always make sure you get radiation therapy at only a leading center that has been doing it for a long time. Make sure the center employs licensed, certified technicians to operate the therapy machines. Don't be dazzled by the new smell and clean look of a spanking-new therapy center. That could be a sign that people aren't well trained yet to keep you safe.

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February 10, 2010

FDA Has New Initiative on Excessive Radiation to Patients

The scandal about injuries to cancer patients from malpractice in radiation therapy has had one beneficial side effect: the Food and Drug Administration is gaining urgency and attention for its new initiative to reduce unnecessary radiation in diagnostic imaging of patients.

Here is a link to the FDA's White Paper on its steps to make sure patients get only the dosage of radiation needed, at the right time and in the right way.

One part of the project is to make it easy for patients to keep track of how much radiation they've had, because accumulated dosing is what causes long-term injuries. The FDA says it is working

to develop and disseminate a patient medical imaging record card.26 FDA will make this card available on our website. While ultimately the best way of tracking a patient’s history of radiation exposure will be to incorporate it into that patient’s paper or electronic medical record, a personal record card will give patients and their caregivers a means, in the short term, of tracking their own medical imaging histories and sharing this information with their physicians. This will help facilitate critical discussions between patients and providers about the best available clinical options.

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January 31, 2010

Better Care with the Tried and True, or the Seduction of the New?

Time and again in U.S. health care, new technologies are hurried into wide use with little testing, scant training of their human operators, and lack of solid evidence that newer really is better. After the flush of optimism has faded, billions of dollars later, we learn how to judiciously use the new equipment, but only after patients have been hurt or killed by the rush to the new.

The latest example is the deployment of new radiation therapy machines on cancer patients with operators who are not properly trained or credentialed and equipment that has not been tested or calibrated. The New York Times' recent investigative series on the subject prompted one knowledgeable reader, Dr. Joseph Imperato, medical director of the Center for Advanced Radiation Medicine at Lake Forest (Ill.) Hospital. to write this:

To the Editor:

As a radiation oncologist practicing for 25 years, I believe that there is a crucial part of the story of radiation mishaps that has not been mentioned: the “nuclear arms race,” in which people want the newest technologies, without stopping to think about who is operating them.

In the past, academic medical centers were typically the first to obtain and use new technologies. The equipment would be thoroughly vetted and reported on in peer review articles before being accepted and used by the smaller community hospitals.

Now the reverse is true. Small community hospitals often far outpace academic medical centers. One example is the proliferation of proton centers run by for-profit companies. Often the staff has limited knowledge and experience with this extraordinarily complex equipment. And new technologies are often assumed by the public to be better, even though there is often little firm clinical data to support that.

As we struggle as a country to come to grips with health care costs, this is one area where there is great opportunity for savings. Clinical reviews can prevent the proliferation of needlessly expensive technology. What the public must come to grips with is that “new” is not automatically “better.”

See the Times' letters section for more.

In my book, "The Life You Save," I have several chapters that speak to this issue, particularly with new drugs. What patients need to understand is that whatever the technology, the early years of use are in essence a continuation of the testing phase. If you are comfortable with being a guinea pig, that's fine, but very often you can get better, safer care with the tried and true. And if the new technology looks enticing, go with an operator who has the most experience using it, because practice does make perfect.

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January 28, 2010

Preventing Malpractice in Radiation Therapy

What can cancer patients do to protect themselves from malpractice in radiation therapy? This urgent question arises from a lengthy series of investigative reports in the New York Times. The articles exposed serious patient injuries that stem from therapists who are overwhelmed and inexperienced, lax regulation and indifference by hospital administrators.

A key part of the problem is that technological sophistication has outrun the ability of the humans running the radiation machines to monitor the safety of the radiation beams they train on patients' bodies.

Another issue is that no central agency is responsible for inspecting the machines and credentialing the people who run them. Depending on the type of radiation involved, the Food and Drug Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and various state health agencies could have jurisdiction. Or worse, each could claim that someone else has the jurisdiction, and the patient can slip through the cracks.

There is one simple way that patients can take some measure of self-protection. That is to make sure that the radiation therapy center treating you has significant experience, in years not months, with the specific machine being used on you. Too often, hospital administrators buy a fancy new machine, advertise it heavily in glossy brochures, but don't take the time to make sure the machine is properly calibrated and that the medical physicists who operate the machine are fully trained.

You should also ask if the machine treating you has been inspected recently by an independent agency. One federally funded inspection and testing service is the Radiological Physics Center, operated out of MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. It does inspections for any radiation center that wants to receive federal funding for clinical trials. The Center found in 2008 that nearly three in ten hospitals it inspected failed to accurately irradiate a test dummy using IMRT technology.

The Times also found rampant problems with fake credentials among medical physicists, who are in charge of making sure patients get the right dose of radiation. The American Board of Radiology certifies medical physicists in one of three sub-specialties. You can check if a physicist is certified at the umbrella website for all medical board certifications, the American Board of Medical Specialties. Click here to go to the login page to search for a medical physicist's certification. The same page will let you search for whether a doctor is board-certified in any of the ABMS specialties or sub-specialties.

Also, the American Board of Medical Physics runs some certification programs. Its website has lists of diplomates but lacks any searchable database of qualified physicists. So the ABMS website is a better choice.

I recommend that patients ask questions to find out the qualifications of the persons running your radiation treatment program. If they lack certification, why take a chance?

I discuss the certification issue in detail in my book, "The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care -- and Avoiding the Worst." Many of the most egregious cases of malpractice that I have prosecuted for victims' families have involved doctors who lacked basic board certifications. Click here for more information on the kinds of malpractice cases we work on.

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January 24, 2010

Malpractice in Radiation Therapy: Hideous Injuries from Lack of Simple Checklists

More evidence of the urgent need for "checklists" to protect patient safety in complex medical treatments comes with a long article in the New York Times about terrible injuries from malpractice episodes during radiation therapy. Yet readers have to dive deep into the article to find this key point.

Scott Jerome-Parks suffered terrible radiation burns to his neck, and lingered for two years in agony before dying, because he received a seven-fold overdose in the radiation that was supposed to treat his tongue cancer, on three separate occasions. Why did it happen? The hospital, St. Vincent's in New York, blamed a confluence of tragic coincidences. But I reached a different conclusion, as I wrote in a blog post to the Times' "Well" blog:

Deep in this tragic article is the following paragraph that exposes the reforms that are needed before medical care can become safe for all patients:

"It was customary — though not mandatory — that the physicist would run a test before the first treatment to make sure that the computer had been programmed correctly. Yet that was not done until after the third overdose."

So there you have it. If the physicist had been required to run the test -- better yet, if the equipment had been set so that it wouldn't work until the final test had been run -- Scott Jerome-Parks would not have suffered the hideous injuries so eloquently described in the article.

Medicine needs to adopt standard and mandatory - not merely "customary" -- checklist routines to ensure the safety of patients. This is the thesis of Atul Gawande's new book, "The Checklist Manifesto," and I have a chapter on how patients can enforce checklist protocols before surgery in my own book, "The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care -- and Avoiding the Worst."

Many medical commenters on the New York Times "Well" blog defensively say, "We're only human," to excuse these kinds of errors. Yes! That's exactly the point of the checklist. It recognizes that we're all only human and that when we are deploying potentially deadly treatments, a final check and double-check is needed, every time, before pressing the button.

The Times also found that the manufacturer of the software that ran the linear accelerator, which delivered the radiation, did not have in place until after the injury a simple "fail-safe" mechanism to prevent the kind of error that occurred.

The entire article by the brilliant reporter, Walt Bogdanich, is worth reading. Here is the Times' own summary of the article:

The Times found that while this new technology allows doctors to more accurately attack tumors and reduce certain mistakes, its complexity has created new avenues for error — through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training. When those errors occur, they can be crippling.

I also recommend that readers interested in patient safety issues go through some of the NYT "Well" blog posts on this article.

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