Americans today receive far more medical radiation than ever before. The average lifetime dose of diagnostic radiation has increased sevenfold since 1980, and more than half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy.
Often, patients know little about the harm that can result when safety rules are violated and ever more powerful and technologically complex machines go awry.
The complexity of medical radiation technology has created new avenues for error—through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training.
When those errors occur, they can be deadly.
Regulators and researchers can only guess how often radiotherapy accidents occur. Accidents are chronically underreported, and some states do not require that they be reported at all.
Last year a Philadelphia hospital gave the wrong radiation dose to more than 90 patients with prostate cancer—and then kept quiet about it. In 2005, a Florida hospital disclosed that 77 brain cancer patients had received 50 percent more radiation than prescribed because a powerful linear accelerator had been programmed incorrectly for nearly a year.