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Published: Sunday, 2/14/2010

Making radiation safer

Government regulation and oversight of medical radiation have not kept up with its use. As patients get radiation far more frequently than ever before, for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, the need for more stringent industry safeguards is crucial.

So it is a welcome development that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to flex its regulatory muscle to standardize improvements in the delivery of medical radiation. Serious radiation problems evidently persist because of weak oversight and patchwork regulations. In a recent series, the New York Times documented deadly results for patients who were over-radiated.

The harm apparently was incurred when complex machines that dispense potent forms of medical radiation, including popular CT scans, were programmed incorrectly and basic safety measures were not followed. The Times investigation also revealed how an uneven system of laws governing medical imaging procedures fails to protect patients.

Supported by patient advocates and, for the most part, manufacturers of radiation devices, the FDA aims to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure from medical imaging procedures that include CT scans, nuclear medicine studies, and fluoroscopies. "These types of imaging exams expose patients to ionizing radiation, a type of radiation that can increase a person's lifetime cancer risk," the FDA says.

To prevent future overdose accidents, the federal agency is considering proposals that would change equipment to make settings and radiation doses more exact and error-proof. They also would incorporate new safety practices into the accreditation process of imaging facilities and hospitals.

The safeguards are long overdue. They ought to nudge both the industry and technologists to maximize vital advances in their life-saving business.

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