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Camryn Hansen
Camryn Hansen
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When Medical Errors Meet Radiation Treatments

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Earlier this week, The New York Times published an article that exemplifies the pressing, life-and-death need for more and stronger patient safety measures. It details the story of Scott Jerome-Parks, who was diagnosed with tongue cancer and prescribed radiation to help treat it. When he went in for treatment, however, a computer error caused a linear accelerator—an incredibly powerful radiation beam generator—to blast his entire brain stem and neck with radiation so severe that it left him deaf, nearly blind, unable to swallow, burned, and in searing, unbearable pain. Jerome-Parks ultimately died of the radiation overdose at the age of 43.

Hospital workers had the opportunity to catch the computer error ahead of time and prevent this tragedy, but didn’t double check the computer settings until Jerome-Parks had been overdosed with radiation three sessions in a row.

Horrifyingly, the Times tells us, radiation accidents like this one are far from rare:

Because New York State is a leader in monitoring radiotherapy and collecting data about errors, The Times decided to examine patterns of accidents there and spent months obtaining and analyzing records…[which] described 621 mistakes from 2001 to 2008. While most were minor, causing no immediate injury, they nonetheless illuminate underlying problems.

The Times found that on 133 occasions, devices used to shape or modulate radiation beams…were left out, wrongly positioned or otherwise misused.

On 284 occasions, radiation missed all or part of its intended target or treated the wrong body part entirely. In one case, radioactive seeds intended for a man’s cancerous prostate were instead implanted in the base of his penis. Another patient with stomach cancer was treated for prostate cancer. Fifty patients received radiation intended for someone else, including one brain cancer patient who received radiation intended for breast cancer.

Clearly, not enough safety measures are in place to ensure that errors like these are spotted before patients are exposed to deadly doses of radiation.

Instead of being influenced by “tort reformers” who pander to insurance companies and big pharma, health care reform legislation should focus some serious attention on patient safety. We have no less than a moral responsibility to protect the rights and lives of Americans like Scott Jerome-Parks and the 98,000 others who die every year from preventable medical errors.