Radiology Safety

Make no mistake, I believe that healthcare has a special obligation to protect the well being of our patients, our beneficiaries, our charges. When it comes to radiology, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy (where treating the patient involves sticking them in an astoundingly complex machine and exercising advanced concepts in physics to have a computer reconstruct fragments of data into an intelligible picture)… well its just so damned complicated that we have to assume the full responsibility for patient safety because, under those circumstances, it is wholly unreasonable to expect the patient to be active participants in their own safety.

Also, make no mistake that I find the highly publicized flock of radiation exposure accidents abhorrent oversights. Whether it was equipment calibration, record errors, or simple human foul-ups, each of these violates the simple truth of the special obligation to patient safety that imaging has. But I think we have to look at these accidents squarely, and assess what went wrong, what the adverse outcomes were, and the appropriate preventative and mitigating steps are before we promote knee-jerk responses.

I am enthralled by MRI. And while my life and livelihood are by no means tied exclusively to this one modality, I am certainly doing myself no worldly favor by suggesting that the ‘simple fix’ of moving more patients to the safe solution, MRI, is neither simple nor necessarily safe (or safer, which is really the object). Hear me out…

Medical radiation accidents, in most of the reported cases, involve over-exposure of the individual. While there are extreme examples of this that result in clear, severe and sometimes fatal outcomes, most these over-exposures are similar in incremental lifetime risk to that of having spent your teenage years sun-worshiping, instead of worshiping bottles SPF 30. The best estimations for many of these accidents are that they involve modest increases to lifetime risks of developing cancer… outcomes that will manifest themselves often 20 years or more after the exposure.

It should not be forgotten that MRI is not without its risks. While they aren’t insidious, clandestine biological risks like lifetime cancer probabilities, they are equally serious. Recent examples include burns (up to a severity requiring amputation) magnetically-induced projectiles breaking bones or crushing body parts, and earlier this year a woman who was struck, killed, and her corpse magnetically-pinned to the MRI scanner!

Because the negative effects of medical ionizing radiation exposure (from X-ray based modalities, radiopharmecuticals or beam therapies) often won’t be realized for decades, particular consideration should be paid to treating the young, those under 30. Whenever feasible and clinically appropriate, these patients should be considered for non-ionizing exams and therapies, such as MRI or ultrasound, in lieu of CT. But we shouldn’t simply redirect everyone who can name all three Jonas Brothers to MRI, certainly not with how well we’ve been managing those risks.

While it hasn’t made Walt Bogdanich’s New York Times series on radiology accidents, the last several years of MRI accident data show accidents and adverse events quadrupling over four years! MRI is currently still an extraordinarily safe imaging option, but the meteoric growth in accidents, and the continued acceleration of that growth, are each frightening.

I have a ten-year-old daughter, and we have (reluctantly) acceded to her having a fluoroscopic exam, and I would choose an MRI, hands-down, for anything for which it was equally diagnostic. But each year that I watch the accident-trend data, the calculus gets a little bit more difficult. The MRI grows less appealing, and this is egregious because it should be the irrefutably safe option.

You see, we know what causes MRI accidents, and we know how to prevent them. The fact of quadrupled MRI accidents isn’t because of sunspots, or statistical clusters, or global warming, or MRI voodoo dolls, or anything else similarly beyond our understanding or control. The fact of quadrupled MRI accidents is because we, individually and collectively, fail to act. We fail to follow industry best practices. We fail to even expect best practices of our providers!

We should directly confront the issues of radiology safety, and not just those that land on the pages of the NY Times. In imaging we have a particular obligation to protect our patients, including those going for MRI.

Tobias Gilk, President & MRI Safety Director
Mednovus, Inc.

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PS: They’re Nick, Joe and Kevin (the Jonas Brothers). You could either think I’m under 30 (‘Ha’), or realize that I have a pre-teen daughter… Take your pick.

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