John Lennon, who if he were still with us would be celebrating his 73rd birthday this October, 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 of man’s most fantastic discoveries were found while he was searching for something else.
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, a patient could easily have redundant 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 enhance the safety of medical radiation and to reduce unnecessary exposure in patients, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
ASTRO is committed to a patient protection plan that, it says, “will improve safety and quality and reduce the chances of medical errors.” In 2010, FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) launched an Initiative to Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging, to support informed clinical decision making and to increase patients’ awareness of their own exposure.
The agency also is collaborating with other organizations to develop a patient medical imaging history card that will allow patients to track their own medical imaging history and share the cumulative history of radiation that patients have already received with their physicians.
It’s been 118 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.