Friday, February 26, 2010

All the News That’s Fit to Print

Newspaper articles may not provide the most authoritative information about science and medicine, but they are probably the primary source of news about medical physics for the layman. Today, I will discuss some recent articles from one of the leading newspapers in the United States: the venerable New York Times.

Last week Russ Hobbie sent me a copy of an article in the February 16 issue of the NYT, titled “New Source of an Isotope in Medicine is Found.” It describes the continuing shortage of technetium-99m, a topic I have discussed before in this blog.
Just as the worldwide shortage of a radioactive isotope used in millions of medical procedures is about to get worse, officials say a new source for the substance has emerged: a nuclear reactor in Poland.

The isotope, technetium 99, is used to measure blood flow in the heart and to help diagnose bone and breast cancers. Almost two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from two reactors; one, in Ontario, has been shut for repairs for nine months and is not expected to reopen before April, and the other, in the Netherlands, will close for six months starting Friday.

Radiologists say that as a result of the shortage, their treatment of some patients has had to revert to inferior materials and techniques they stopped using 20 years ago.

But on Wednesday, Covidien, a company in St. Louis that purifies the material created in the reactor and packages it in a form usable by radiologists, will announce that it has signed a contract with the operators of the Maria reactor, near Warsaw, one of the world’s most powerful research reactors.
I doubt that relying on a Polish reactor is a satisfactory long-term solution to our 99mTc shortage, but it may provide crucial help with the short term crisis. A more promising permanent solution is described in a January 26 article on medicalphysicsweb.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) announced today it has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to help develop a U.S. supply of a radioisotope used in more than 20 million diagnostic medical procedures in the United States each year.
More information can be found at the American Association of Physicists in Medicine website. Let’s hope that this new initiative will prove successful.

The second topic I want to discuss today was called to my attention by my former student Phil Prior (PhD in Biomedical Sciences: Medical Physics, Oakland University, 2008). On January 26, the NYT published Walt Bogdanich’s article “As Technology Surges, Radiation Safeguards Lag.”
In New Jersey, 36 cancer patients at a veterans hospital in East Orange were overradiated—and 20 more received substandard treatment—by a medical team that lacked experience in using a machine that generated high-powered beams of radiation… In Louisiana, Landreaux A. Donaldson received 38 straight overdoses of radiation, each nearly twice the prescribed amount, while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer… In Texas, George Garst now wears two external bags—one for urine and one for fecal matter—because of severe radiation injuries he suffered after a medical physicist who said he was overworked failed to detect a mistake.

These mistakes and the failure of hospitals to quickly identify them offer a rare look into the vulnerability of patient safeguards at a time when increasingly complex, computer-controlled devices are fundamentally changing medical radiation, delivering higher doses in less time with greater precision than ever before.

Serious radiation injuries are still infrequent, and the new equipment is undeniably successful in diagnosing and fighting disease. But the technology introduces its own risks: it has created new avenues for error in software and operation, and those mistakes can be more difficult to detect. As a result, a single error that becomes embedded in a treatment plan can be repeated in multiple radiation sessions.
A related article by the same author, “Radiation Offers New Cures, and Ways to Do Harm,” was also published in the Gray Lady a few days earlier. These articles discuss recent medical mistakes in which patients have received much more radiation than originally intended. While somewhat sensational, the articles reinforce the importance of quality control in medical physics.

The NYT articles triggered a response from the American Association of Physicists in Medicine on January 28.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) has issued a statement today in the wake of several recent articles in the New York Times yesterday and earlier in the week that discuss a number of rare but tragic events in the last decade involving people undergoing radiation therapy.

While it does not specifically comment on the details of these events, the statement acknowledges their gravity. It reads in part: “The AAPM and its members deeply regret that these events have occurred, and we continue to work hard to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future.” The full statement appears here.

Today's statement also seeks to reassure the public on the safety of radiation therapy, which is safely and effectively used to treat hundreds of thousands of people with cancer and other diseases every year in the United States. Medical physicists in hospitals and clinics across the United States are board-certified professionals who play a key role in assuring quality during these treatments because they are directly responsible for overseeing the complex technical equipment used.

Taken together, the articles I’ve discussed today highlight some of the challenges that face the field of medical physics. For those who want additional background about the underlying physics and its applications to medicine, I recommend—you guessed it—the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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