John Lennon, who would have turned 70 last month, famously said, “Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things.”
A similar axiom can apply to some of history's greatest triumphs and inventions; many fantastic discoveries were found while searching for something else.
Case in point: Celebrating its 96th annual meeting in Chicago at the end of this month, the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) — and, for that matter, modern medicine as we know it — wouldn't exist were it not for one such serendipitous accident.
On November 8, 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was trying to repeat an experiment in which cathode rays light up salts and darken a photographic plate. During one of his attempts, he happened to notice a green glow by a nearby fluorescent screen; when he held his hand between it and the cathode-ray tube, he could see his bones and soft tissue. Weeks after his discovery, he took the very first x-ray picture, photographing his wife's hand. Legend has it that when she saw her skeleton, she exclaimed, “I have seen my death!”
One can certainly understand Mrs. Roentgen's overreaction, especially in 1895, when such sights must have been thought akin to sorcery. And she brought up a valid point: Overexposure to x-rays can hurt you. In fact, one of modern-day radiology's biggest challenges is how to best use technology to ensure that patients aren't subjected to harmful — or even lethal — doses of radiation.
A huge problem is that the effects of radiation are cumulative; if records are not accurately kept, patients could easily have tests repeated unnecessarily over many years; their bodies bombarded by avoidable doses of radiation.
To that end, the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) and the FDA have launched radiation safety initiatives to reduce unnecessary exposure in patients, according to an article published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
According to ASTRO, the patient protection plan “will improve safety and quality and reduce the chances of medical errors.” Meanwhile, the FDA is launching an initiative to: promote the safe use of imaging devices for medical use, support informed clinical decision making and increase patients' awareness of their own exposure.
The agency also is collaborating with other organizations to develop a medical imaging history card that will allow patients to track their own imaging history and share with physicians the cumulative history of radiation already received.
It's been 115 years since Mrs. Roentgen saw her death through an x-ray; it's time we used technology to make sure no one else has to.