New York Medical Malpractice Attorney Recommends Cancer Patients Take Precautionary Steps Before Undergoing Radiation Therapy

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Richard Gurfein, regarded as one of the best medical malpractice attorneys in New York, and a former president of The New York State Trial Lawyers Association, urges cancer patients to talk to their doctor about the benefits and risks of radiation therapy before undergoing treatment. Mr. Gurfein offers patients helpful tips on how to evaluate the treatment they are getting, how to discuss the details of their treatment plan with their radiation oncologist and how to learn as much as they can about the quality assurance checks and balances at the clinic, or hospital, where they are being treated.

A patient should make themselves knowledgable in the area in which they are about to undergo treatment.

More than half of all people with cancer undergo some form of radiation therapy. And while treatment errors are rare -- occurring in only about 50-to-100 times per million courses of treatment -- one New York medical malpractice attorney urges patients to talk with their doctor about the benefits and risks of radiation therapy before beginning treatment.

“As is the case with any medical procedure,” advises Richard Gurfein, senior partner of Gurfein Douglas, a New York personal injury and medical malpractice law firm, “a patient should make themselves knowledgeable in the area in which they are about to undergo treatment.”

While serious radiation injuries are still infrequent, Gurfein said every patient should discuss the details of the treatment plan with their radiation oncologist and learn as much as they can about the quality assurance checks and balances at the clinic, or hospital, where they are being treated.

“Even one error is too many,” he said. “A machine designed to deliver high-powered beams of radiation to specific parts of a patient’s body requires years of education, experience and skill to operate properly to prevent an overdose and other severe radiation-related injuries.”

Further, Gurfein recommends that once the treatment begins, patients should stay actively involved in their therapy -- which is administered 5-to-7 times per week for multiple weeks -- to be sure that doctors, therapists and nurses are conducting regular quality assurance checks to be sure the patient is getting the right treatment.

There are a number of steps, Gurfein explained, that have to take place before radiation therapy for cancer is started. First, a filter must be designed for each individual patient to ensure that radiation prescribed in the treatment plan will indeed hit the intended targets, and block unwanted radiation from reaching other, healthy parts of the patient’s body.”

The New York Times reported recently that 36 cancer patients at a veterans hospital in East Orange, NJ were overradiated, and 20 more received substandard treatment. According to the report, a medical team that lacked experience in using a new complex, computer-controlled machine that the hospital had just purchased caused the errors.

“The risk of operator error increases,” Gurfein said, “as technology becomes more sophisticated.”
While New York State licenses medical physicists to administer radiation, Gurfein said the state does not mandate periodic re-examination.

“Once licensed,” Gurfein said, “a medical physicist need only submit the appropriate fee to renew his or her license. In a field with rapidly changing technologies, I believe the state should require re-examination every five years to maintain the highest level of knowledgeable practitioners.

“There is growing realization among those who work with this technology,” he added, “that some safety procedures are outdated, and that medical societies have been unable to keep up with the rapid pace of technical improvements.”

Gurfein recounted a medical malpractice case he handled recently involving a teenage girl with Hodgkin’s disease who suffered a devastating injury as a result of misdirected radiation.

“Her oncologist,” Gurfein explained, “designed a filter to block radiation from reaching her young ovaries. But the technician who built the filter carelessly omitted the blocks. It wasn’t until ninety percent of the therapy had been administered that her doctors discovered the omission. By then her ovaries were destroyed.”

Gurfein noted that in his almost 40 years in practice as a New York medical malpractice lawyer, approximately 50% of all medical malpractice claims are caused by less then 5% of all doctors.

For this reason, Gurfein recommends, patients should always check their doctor’s references. One good source of information is the New York State Department of Health website, which can be found by entering the following web address: http://www.health.state.ny.us/professionals/doctors/conduct . Patients should also “Google” their doctor’s name and see what comes up. And, of course, the most obvious step is to ask family, friends and neighbors for a referral.

“Although not all doctors who are negligent do so over and over again,” he said. “It is statistically probable that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

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