Our Chicago medical negligence lawyers have become concerned about the risks of medical radiation – a danger that is often overlooked. The amount of medical radiation to which Americans are exposed far exceeds that of the rest of the world, even other wealthy nations. In fact, at least half of the medical radiation used in the world is used right here in the United States. And it’s getting worse: over the last few decades, the radiation dose of the average American has increased six times over.
This is due in large part to the rise of the CT scan. CT scans have grown quickly in popularity — with good reason — but have taken the place of of tests that do not use radiation, including ultrasounds and MRIs, and that use lower doses of radiation, such as x-rays.
Why is this important? Well, many Americans worry about the amount of radiation to which they are exposed – but they worry about cellphones, microwaves, airport security screening, and even power lines. Although these sources provide only a negligible amount of radiation (unlike medical testing), the debate over these sources has highlighted the danger: too much radiation exposure can lead to cancer. And radiation dose is cumulative – it adds up over time.
While scientist don’t know exactly how much radiation is dangerous, they have a pretty good guess. The best information is based upon analysis of victims of Chernobyl and survivors of the atomic bombs dropped in Japan in World War II. These individuals had “excess cancer risk” if they were exposed to between 50 and 150 millisieverts of radiation. To put this figure in context, over the course of the year we each are exposed to around 2 millisieverts of radiation simply from the light of the sun. A CT scan of the chest or abdomen involves around 20 millisieverts of radiation. Thus, a patient who receives three or four such scans has already received a dangerous amount of radiation. Indeed, around 4 million Americans are estimated to receive more than 20 millisieverts of radiation annually from medical imaging. Three years of such exposure could constitute an “excess cancer risk” according to what we have learned from Chernobyl and Hiroshima.
Our personal injury lawyers understand there are countless circumstances that absolutely justify this high level of radiation to obtain a diagnostic CT study. For instance, a CT of the head is the “gold standard” to detect a traumatic brain injury in patients who present to the hospital with signs of a head injury. In other contexts, an abdominal CT may be required to determine whether an abdominal abscess is the source of an infection. There are thousands of other contexts in which CTs are absolutely justified. In other instances, however, the risk of exposure to the levels of radiation does not justify the benefit to be gained from the test.
As an example, radiologist Steven Birnbaum reports that he had a teenager sent to him for a CT scan to check for kidney stones. When he looked at records, however, he found that the boy had previously had 14 such scans. Dr. Birnbaum “was horrified” at the cancer risk posed by the total radiation dosage the teen had already received. This is wrong.
Dr. Birnbaum also had another, more personal experience with excess radiation. His daughter suffered a car accident and was given excessive imaging at the hospital. In response, Dr. Birnbaum put procedures in place to watch for such excessive imaging at the two hospitals where he worked. He defined excessive imaging as obviously dangerous amounts: 10 or more CT scans or, in patients under 40, 5 or more scans. They did not review their records, they simply watched the files of patients coming in.
What he found was shocking. Over a three year period, the two hospitals found 50 people who met this criteria. One woman had been subjected to 31 abdominal CT scans – far more than the parameters Dr. Birnbaum had set up, and in an area of the body particularly susceptible to radiation. And a recent study found that in the first few days in the hospital, the average American heart attack victim receives an amount of radiation from medical imaging comparable to 850 chest x-rays – a great deal of it from repeat tests.
Part of the problem is simply busyness – or perhaps laziness. Some of the risks of excessive radiation from medical imaging could be eliminated or at least reduced by simply using the proper dosage of radiation for each patient. The dose of radiation needed to perform a test varies from patient to patient based upon factors such as size, gender, and age. Yet many radiation centers simply do not bother to adjust the dosage between patients, leaving the machine on a high setting and posing a great risk to young women and children. The failure to take the simple precaution of adjusting the dosage for each patient may constitute medical malpractice.
The federal government has no plans to truly change this. The Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to require that imaging centers print the dosage on films, so that the recipients and their doctors can see how much radiation was used, and may impose record-keeping requirements so that doctors and patients can assess a patient’s “lifetime” dosage. But the FDA will not require radiologists or physicians to actually do so. And while the FDA has also urged the medical industry to itself set “standard” doses for certain types of tests, the FDA has no plans to regulate the amount of radiation used, either per test or over the course of time.
The Chicago medical malpractice attorneys understand that CTs are a remarkable testing device that saves thousands of lives each year through detecting various disorders. We also understand that when this form of testing is overused or misused, there can be devastating consequences for patients. In the interest of patient safety, we hope medical practitioners will find the proper balance.
For a Free Consultation with an experienced Chicago medical malpractice lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.