Radiation Overdoses on the Rise

In Sunday’s edition of the NY Times, highlighted the growing problem of radiation overdoses in the United States. Radiation therapy has become increasingly popular, especially in the treatment of cancer. Since 1980, the lifetime dose of radiation a person receives has increased seven fold. However, radiation is not without its risks and potential for serious injury. Dr. John J. Feldmeier, a radiation oncologist at the University of Toledo estimates that 1 in 20 patients will be injured by radiation therapy. As part of its investigation, the NY Times researched the issue in NY state hospitals from 2001 to 2008 and found 621 radiation mistakes including radiation applied to the wrong area of the body.
One particularly gruesome example highlighted in the Times article concerned a 43 year old man who received radiation to treat tongue cancer. In this case, the hospital failed to detect an equipment error which directed radiation at his brain stem and neck rather than the intended area. He died in excruciating pain, unable to see, hear, and unable to swallow. The man died in 2007.
Because such medical errors are not disclosed to the public in NY state, prospective radiation patients aren’t able to know which hospital has had radiation errors in the past. This lack of accountability leaves patients in the uncomfortable situation of having to place blind trust in hospitals or institutions that may have committed serious radiation errors in the past. It also doesn’t force such hospitals to correct errors or prevent them from occurring in the future.