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Nuking medical errors

Wearing scrubs, it's none other than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

For Pennsylvanians who remember the missteps surrounding the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission might not be their chosen first line of defense against errors in their medical care.

But the NRC is right in the middle of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center controversy, by virtue of the fact that it regulates medical radiation therapies.

Of course, the NRC investigators weren't patrolling the corridors of the hospital in hazmat suits when the 92 prostate cancer patients had their surgeries botched. It was a part-time doc at the West Philadelphia medical center who tipped off the feds to dosing errors in the implantation of radioactive pellets in patients.

So far, though, the NRC has done a good job of pinpointing problem areas that likely contributed to the botched surgeries going undetected for six years: the VA's apparent failure to train clinicians on radiation therapy errors and reporting practices, the lack of independent oversight to assure quality, and safety monitors who, for some reason, just fell down on the job. Those are important safeguards for all hospitals in a climate where medical errors can be not just painful but also costly.

No wise-cracks, please, about hoping the NRC can do as good a job keeping nuclear control-room staffers from dozing off on the job.

Read "Playing with lives" on today's Inquirer Editorial Page.