Radiation Therapy Accidents vs. MRI Accidents

I stumbled across a paper abstract from the International Journal of Medical Physics Research and Practice. The abstract described a meeting on radiation oncology safety which, “attracted 400 attendees, including medical physicists, radiation oncologists, medical dosimetrists, radiation therapists, hospital administrators, regulators, and representatives of equipment manufacturers. The meeting was cohosted by 14 organizations in the United States and Canada.”

Damn! I’m impressed, particularly since the abstract also states that this meeting was hastily called in response to articles appearing, starting in January of this year, in the New York Times on radiology and radiation therapy accidents. Such a coordinated response by the professional societies. Such representation from the professional community at a time when conference and professional development budgets are being slashed. How does this compare with MRI?

Well, MRI accidents haven’t been the focus of a string of national news articles, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge safety-minded professionals within radiation oncology from seizing upon the public attention to address longstanding safety issues… but how do the raw numbers compare? Fortunately, we have an excellent resource for raw numbers and we don’t have to idly wonder.

The FDA’s medical device adverse event database, MAUDE, is much maligned (much of the maligning is by me), but its one redeeming value is that it gives us a snapshot, over time, of medical-device related adverse events.

I searched MAUDE, and from 1999 – 2009, three ‘radiation therapy’ product codes (JAI, LHN, IWB) accounted for 165 total adverse event reports. Some of those included things like pinched fingers while the couch was moving, but some were also the more serious adverse events, such as incorrect dose administration.

During the same 10 year period, the MAUDE database revealed that MRI (product code LNH) has 838 adverse event reports! That’s 5 times as many as radiation therapy! Similar to the radiation therapy reports, there were also adverse event accounts that were spurious, at best, but mixed in were accounts of broken bones, penetrating wounds, and even death, related to MRI hazards.

At the risk of being repetitive, I do not begrudge or belittle the current efforts at making radiation therapy safer for all who administer and receive it. Everywhere there is error in healthcare delivery, we have a duty to work to squeeze it out of existence, and nowhere is that mission more important than in the highly technical arenas of radiology, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy. My frustration, however, lies in the fact that larger safety issues, and safety issues that clearly have a dangerous trajectory, are being ignored.

I would love to see a collaborative forum of 14 organizations, MR manufacturers, and regulatory agencies from multiple countries gather to speak to the alarming growth of MR accidents. I’d love to see 400 professionals convene for a conference dedicated to practical, actionable and direct solutions to our contemporary MR safety needs. Unfortunately, many organizations that have similar duties to the MR community are ‘just too busy’ to look at MR safety right now.

I’ve said it before (and will say it again despite the fact that I hope I am completely and utterly wrong), it may take another high-profile MRI fatality to shake-off the professional indifference to MR safety issues.

Tobias Gilk,
President & MRI Safety Director — Mednovus, Inc.
Sr. Vice President — RAD-Planning.com

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