Cancer treatment problems at VA

    Medical errors at Philadelphia’s Veterans Affairs Hospital prompted a federal commission to review a dozen more VA hospitals across the country.

    Widespread concerns about the safety of prostate cancer treatment at Philadelphia’s Veterans Affairs Hospital has unearthed bigger problems there.

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees the use of radiation in cancer treatment across the US, says the Philadelphia hospital was the worst example of poor oversight at 13 VA hospitals. A report this week discovered problems ranging from doctors and technicians who did not report errors to a system-wide inability by the VA to recognize deficiencies in care. Victoria Mitlyng is a spokesperson for the NRC.

    Mitlyng: They did not identify the fact that there were technical problems that prevented this hospital from evaluating what kind of treatment was delivered.

    Mitlyng says those problems led to years of overlooked mistakes for this kind of radiation treatment, called brachytherapy. Eric Horwitz treats prostate cancer patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center. He says patients have become suspicious of brachytherapy since the VA’s problems surfaced two years ago.

    Horwitz: This literally comes up for discussion all the time. And it really is important to note that this is one of the main ways that we can successfully treat people, and when it’s done right people do really well.

    Otis Brawley is the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. He says the treatment is still safe and effective when done by a skilled doctor.

    Talk to your physicians, ask them about their experience, ask them about other people’s outcomes. And if you don’t feel comfortable, ask for a second opinion. Almost every insurance will pay for a patient to go get a second opinion from another doctor.

    Philadelphia’s VA hospital suspended its brachytherapy program in 2008. The VA is being asked to present the NRC with its acknowledgement of these problems and a plan for addressing them at a public hearing in June.

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