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Opportunities for Radiation Errors Increase With Technological Advances

This is one of our editors' picks from our ongoing roundup of Investigations Elsewhere.

An investigation published in The New York Times on Sunday found that while radiation treatment for cancer has undoubtedly saved many lives, the complexity of advancing technology "has created new avenues for error -- through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training." What's more, accidents are not tracked in any comprehensive way and are "chronically underreported."

The Times examined New York state radiation records and found 621 mistakes between 2001 and 2008. Most of these did not cause immediate harm, according to the Times, but do highlight "underlying problems." Last year, the largest wound care company in the U.S. treated 3,000 radiation injuries.

The Times delved into the cases of two victims of serious radiation accidents, both of whom later died. In one case, a "baffling series of missteps" by hospital therapists resulted in repeated overdoses and a gaping wound in the patient's chest. In the other, government investigators blamed flaws in the radiation software and St. Vincent's hospital in New York City "for failing to catch the error."

The president and chief executive of Varian, the company that supplied the radiation software, told the Times that after the accident it warned users to be especially careful and then distributed new software with a fail-safe provision. St. Vincent's said it "acted swiftly and effectively to respond to the event, and worked closely with the equipment manufacturer and the regulatory agencies."

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