Springfield hospital's radiation problems raise questions

Monday, March 15, 2010 | 3:31 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Questions of who oversees radiation therapy professionals have arisen after scores of cancer patients were exposed to dangerous radiation levels over a five-year period at a Springfield hospital.

The Springfield News-Leader reported that the two national boards responsible for certifying medical physicists don't revoke certifications after accidents like the one at CoxHealth, which affected 76 patients.

The boards' officials said state licensing officials have the responsibility in these kinds of scenarios. But Missouri doesn't license medical physicists or anybody else responsible for radiation therapy.

CoxHealth discovered in February that the excessive doses of radiation were delivered because of an improperly calibrated attachment on a linear accelerator.

The name of the person responsible, a medical physicist, has not been released.

Two national associations, the American Board of Medical Physics and the American Board of Radiology, certify medical physicists through a process requiring multiple degrees and clinical training. Even after certification, medical physicists are required to continue their education.

However, both organizations say they don't have the power to pull a person's certified status after an accident.

"We're not policemen," said Ben Archer, co-executive director of the medical physics board.

"The ABR does not investigate," said Stephen Thomas, the radiology board's associate executive director for radiologic physics. "We are not a legal body in that sense, like the FDA or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We respond if a state license incident came to us — which it would — then we would then have the power to revoke certification, but only at that level."

Only four states — Texas, New York, Florida and Hawaii — have license requirements for medical physicists. But the American Association of Physicists in Medicine is lobbying state legislatures in an attempt to change that.

"It's basically about the protection of the public," said Robert Pizzutiello, a medical physicist with that association.

The group had decided in December that legislation was unlikely this session in Missouri, but Pizzutiello said it's rethinking its position after the CoxHealth case.

There are also efforts to create tougher standards at the federal level. A bill working its way through the U.S. House would require states to demonstrate stricter regulation and oversight in the radiation industry.

The bill doesn't require licensure, but Pizzutiello said it would more than fill the requirements set forth by it.

"Licensure is definitely the direction of the future," he said.

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