Recently, Image Wisely® has been hosting Facebook Live events to educate viewers on topics surrounding radiation safety. A March segment focused on radiation safety in crematoriums — in part to address misguided media coverage of a published JAMA research letter on the potential hazards of handling radiopharmaceuticals postmortem. During the segment, Mahadevappa Mahesh, MS, PhD, FACR, chair of the ACR Commission on Medical Physics, emphasized the need for education, awareness, and cooperation between caregivers, radiation safety experts, and crematorium operators to avoid public misconceptions.
How did this Facebook Live event come about?
The ACR and the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) released a statement clarifying that radioactive material is routinely used in medical treatments. The risk to the person operating a crematorium is so small that it cannot be measured. In addition, national and international groups dedicated to protecting the public from exposure to radiation have clear guidelines in place about how to deal with radioactivity in patient remains.
What is significant about this type of public message?
With the coverage of radiation in crematoriums — even though radiation levels were not measurable — there was media hype. I strongly believe that ACR treats imaging and radiation therapies as team efforts — including radiologists, radiation oncologists, nuclear medicine physicians, medical physicists, technologists, therapists, and dosimetrists. We all work together on patient and personnel safety, image quality, and for effective therapies — and to dispel harmful and misleading myths about radiation. Similarly, we need to let people know that the use of radiopharmaceuticals in healthcare is routine, has been proven safe, and remains safe.
What can physicians using radiation therapies do to better communicate potential risks to patients?
Patients are generally well informed by radiologists and other physicians who treat them. Of course, physicians should tell patients about the effects of the treatment and any steps they should take to avoid contaminating their surroundings. They should answer any questions patients and their families have. It may not be obvious to the patients receiving treatment, but there is a large safety program behind the scenes, including criteria for releasing radioactive patients to their homes, work, and the public, which involves not only the diagnosing and treating physicians, but health physicists, medical physicists, and radiation safety officers and their delegates. These teams of healthcare and safety professionals work to ensure the therapies are safe during treatment and after discharge.
How can radiologists and other physicians learn more about safety procedures?
ACR has a helpful guide, created alongside AAPM, called the Radiation Safety Officer Resources. It is for medical physicists and physicians serving as radiation safety officers at their medical facilities. It tells them all they need to know — it’s sort of a crash course in being a radiation safety officer — and has links to federal requirements and resources, and sample forms and policies.
Does misinformation unnecessarily create anxiety over exposure to radiation?
Yes, and this could be a problem as the use of radiopharmaceuticals will likely increase with the approval of different types of cancer treatment. When headlines say, “radiation contamination in crematorium,” it can cause a big scare. We want to draw attention to the many safety procedures already in place, and avoid widespread worry about radiation contamination.
What is your message to anyone concerned about patient radiation exposure from a medical procedure?
Generally, the medical benefits of any imaging studies prescribed appropriately far outweigh any associated radiation risks. Concerns and fears are often rooted in a lack of awareness or understanding. Offering accurate information can alleviate unnecessary worries. Radiologists should direct patients to RadiologyInfo.org, which has information on radiation dose levels and associated risks related to medical imaging.