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"1 In 20 Radiation Therapy Patients Will Suffer Injuries."

From the NY Times, that's an estimate from a radiation oncologist and leading authority in the treatment of radiation injuries. 1 in 20. 5 out of every 100.
"Most are normal complications from radiation, not mistakes... But in some cases the line between the two is uncertain..."

"My suspicion is that maybe half of the accidents we don't know about..." says another expert.
What's the true rate of error-caused injury from radiation therapy? Since radiation has inevitable side effects, maybe it's not as bad as 1 in 20. But injuries are said to be under-reported so maybe it's worse. Let's say the two adjustments cancel each other out and 1 in 20 is close to the real rate.

Name another industry that injures or kills five percent of its customers.

This being health care, mistakes leading to injury are blamed on everything from balky computer software to staffing shortages to something called a "wide open multileaf collimator." A physicist fails to run a test before a patient's first treatment. A therapist fails to monitor the correct computer screen. Equipment is not tested after repairs.

So much for six sigma.

Here's a question: who is really at fault if you KNOW your linear accelerator's software is glitch-prone and yet you keep using the machine even while reporting the problem to the manufacturer?

We'd never tolerate that level of "safety" from those who keep our drinking water pure, our air travel accident-free or our nuclear power plants humming. On a probability basis, even our hamburger is safer.

The article quotes one victim's father who "...had thought about starting a campaign to make medical mistakes public — but he never did. Nothing would ever come of it, he concluded."

Not a pretty picture, especially for an industry already on notice about unacceptably high rates of medical errors.


I think Walt Bogdanich's article is written poorly, because the title of your post is based on an inaccurate portrayal of two horrendous medical errors as more common than they are.

The article cited 621 errors in 8 years without mentioning that probably about 470000 people received radiation treatment in that time. That is an error rate of 0.1%, not 5%. But the article didn't include this fact. Here's where I found information within 5 minutes of web search:

I think the 5% was supposed to be serious radiation injury, but again without citing data or recognizing that radiation side effects are different for different cancers.

Mr. Bogdanich is a talented writer who unfortunately chose not put the problem in context. The two patients' trauma from treatment is heart-rending, but the article's message is terribly distorted. The error rate should be zero, vigilance is critical. Hopefully the scrutiny will not scare people away from an effective cancer treatment that does require careful attention and expertise.

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