The New York Times’ Walt Bogdanich reviewed the American Society for Radiation Oncology’s new six-point plan, most of which seem to be a response to Bogdanich’s series (Part 1 | Part 2) on serious radiation errors. As a whole, Bogdanich writes, the plan seems to signal a push for more standardized, consistent and universal regulation of radiation treatment in the United States.
The group’s six-part plan includes creating a database of errors, enhancing accreditation programs, improving training, working with patient support organizations to help patients and caregivers better communicate with their radiation oncologist, further development of a compliance program for technologies from different manufacturers and providing expertise and support to policymakers to pass an act requiring national standards.
Philly VA botched 92 of 116 cancer treatments
Philly VA doc defends himself before Congress
Scans at LA hospital spewed 8x normal radiation
The New York Times‘ Walt Bogdanich has followed up his investigation into a “rogue” cancer unit at a Philadelphia VA hospital with a report on the questioning of one of the alleged rogue doctors, Gary Kao, at a congressional panel headed by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. Kao defended himself by claiming that the mistakes he made during a process called brachytherapy (in which tiny radioactive seeds are inserted into a patient’s prostate) were nothing out of the ordinary.
Dr. Kao did not deny placing large numbers of seeds outside the prostate, but he said investigators were wrong to single him out. “It’s a recognized risk of the procedure,” he told the panel.
Dr. Kao’s assertion was disputed by Steven A. Reynolds, who oversees materials safety at the N.R.C., which regulates all nuclear materials. Cases where large numbers of seeds miss the prostate, Mr. Reynolds said, “happen very, very infrequently.”
Kao said he voluntarily appeared before the panel to set the record straight and correct what he called “very serious false allegations” made by Bogdanich’s initial article.
Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times uncovered an astounding series of regulatory and oversight errors that allowed a “rogue” cancer unit operate with impunity at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia.
Bogdanich reports that its doctors, primarily Dr. Gary Kao, had botched 92 of 116 cancer treatments in more than six years. The unit treated prostate cancer with radioactive implants, a process known as brachytherapy. Doctors in the unit avoided regulation in part by revising surgical plans to cover for mistakes.
The first clear signs of trouble cropped up in early 2003, the unit was suspended in 2008. Here’s a brief catalog of missed opportunities to reign in Johns Hopkins-trained Kao and associates:
- The unit did not have any peer review process in place.
- The V.A.’s radiation safety program didn’t intervene.
- Neither did the Joint Commission, the group that accredited the hospital.
- Doctors in the radiation implant program weren’t properly supervised.
- Or “trained in what constitutes a substandard implant and the need to report it.”
- Errors went unreported for months, or even years, while patients had no idea they were even made.
The whole house of cards only came tumbling down when a mistaken purchase of lower-radiation implants triggered an investigation of previous cases. Investigators didn’t find any lower-radiation implants, but they did find errors. Lots of them.
No patients are believed to have died from this mistake-riddled treatment; the unit was suspended in mid-2008 and similar programs (whose problems don’t seem to have been as severe) were shuttered in Jackson, Miss., and Cincinnati. Seven of the affected patients were flown to a more experienced V.A. unit for additional treatment.
In a related story, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the problems came to light “not because the NRC finished its inquiry” but rather when a Nuclear Regulatory Commission advisory committee asked the agency for an update because “committee members had been hearing disturbing things about the Philadelphia VA’s program.”