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Cancer Treatment Errors, Cover-Up at Philadelphia VA Hospital

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By David Goguen on June 23, 2009 1:39 PM

Patients who received treatment for prostate cancer at Philadelphia's Veterans Affairs Medical Center were victimized by a disturbing pattern of medical errors involving radiation therapy, and the situation has members of Congress calling for a federal inquiry.

The stories emerging this week -- as reported in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer -- detail a number of cases in which radioactive seeds were implanted into patients' healthy organs instead of into cancerous prostates, and outline a cover-up that made sure the errors went unreported (and therefore uncorrected).

In all, 92 prostate cancer patients who were treated at the Philadelphia VA from 2002 to 2008 have been notified "that their 'brachytherapy' radiation doses were too high or too low, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which also reports that "the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has shut down the brachytherapy program in Philadelphia and three other VA hospitals with less serious problems."

In an article that refers to a "rogue cancer unit" at the Philadelphia VA, the New York Times reports that the team continued to perform the radiation seed implants for more than a year "even though the equipment that measured whether patients received the proper radiation dose was broken."

The New York Times story also details cover-ups at the hospital: "The radiation safety committee at the Veterans Affairs hospital knew of this problem but took no action, records show." And, the Times notes, "peer review, a staple of every good hospital, in which colleagues examine one another's work, did not exist in the unit."

The scandal at the Philadelphia VA Hospital has prompted U.S. Senator Arlen Specter to schedule a hearing on the situation for Monday, June 29, and Rep. John Adler has also called for a congressional probe, according to the Inquirer.

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