New radiation technologies are offering patients more focused and precise treatment, but as a series of investigative reports in the New York Times shows, lack of safeguards, software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training are causing these technologies to harm the very patients they are meant to treat.
The New York Times profiles a series of radiation errors involving new, more advanced and highly sophisticated machines capable of delivering a treatment called Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT). The errors have included overdoses caused by poorly configured systems, radiation that misses all or part of the target or is focused on the wrong part of the body and other errors. With these increasingly sophisticated radiation tools, you would think that the margin for errors would be virtually nil. In fact, as the NYT reports, the complexity of the machines that deliver the radiation, combined with the failure of hospitals to implement processes that catch errors in time and poorly trained staff, have all helped create a “crisis” situation.
The results of these oversights have been appalling. In one case involving a breast cancer patient from New York, the overdose was 3 times the prescribed amount, and continued across a staggering 27 days, undetected. In another case, a Louisiana patient received 38 consecutive overdoses, each one more than double the prescribed amount. There are more such heartbreaking accounts of victims who have suffered debilitating injuries and death profiled in the NYT.
As Indiana medical malpractice lawyers, we have a few questions about the manner in which these injuries occurred.
• Why have hospitals promoted the use of these machines if they have lacked the resources to use them safely?
• Why have hospitals pushed these highly advanced machines into service so quickly, unleashing them on large numbers of unsuspecting patients, considering that the technology is so new? One Louisiana patient was blasted with a major overdose, even as training instructors were teaching hospital staff how to use the machine.
• What was the caliber of training offered to medical physicists and technicians in charge of operating these complex machines? In one instance, staff failed to notice warning messages blinking on the screen, for a shocking three consecutive days.
As product liability lawyers in Indiana, we also have questions about the wisdom in designing high intensity, radiation-emitting machines that are not configured to shut down when there is a programming error.
How is it possible that a machine this powerful comes with threadbare safeguards that fail to prevent radiation in case of mistakes? In many of these injuries, over radiation could have been avoided, if there had been a safeguard or device in place to shut the machine down and prevent operation, in case of errors in configuration.
Radiation therapy has undeniable benefits for patients, and errors are few when you consider the vast numbers of patients that are treated with these technologies. However, many of these injuries that have occurred have been extremely serious and were totally preventable.
When you further understand that there have been not the errors of individuals but multiple errors continuing for weeks, you have to wonder if it isn’t time for promoters of these therapies, equipment manufacturers, hospitals, and oncology clinics to step back and revise the manner in which these machines are being used so that the preventable errors are avoided.