Docs in Prison After Radiation Overdose in Prostate Cancer

Zosia Chustecka

February 06, 2013

After a series of radiation overdoses during treatment for prostate cancer, 3 physicians in France have been convicted of manslaughter and serious injury.

Two of the physicians were also banned from practicing medicine ever again.

A court hearing into the case concluded last week. Details were reported on the radiology Web site.

The radiation overdoses occurred from 2001 to 2006 at the Jean Monnet Hospital in Epinal, France. They affected 450 prostate cancer patients and resulted in 12 deaths and numerous cases of urinary and digestive problems and sexual dysfunction.

The judge said that the overdoses resulted from 2 key errors, according to the report.

First, radiation therapy machines installed in 2004 were incorrectly calibrated. It is estimated that from May to August 2005, at least 24 patients received a 20% radiation overdose.

Second, human error led to a miscalculation of final radiation doses. Failure to take into account radiation from previous imaging procedures when calculating the total dose resulted in 424 patients receiving an overdose of about 8% to 10% from 2001 to 2005.

Two of the defendants, described as cancer physicians Dr. Jean-Francois Sztermer and Dr. Michel Aubetel, were each given 4-year suspended sentences for the charges of manslaughter, unintentional injury, and failing to help people in danger, according to the report. Each received a fixed 18-month prison sentence, was fined €20,000 (~$27,000), and was banned for life from practicing medicine.

The third defendant, radiologist Dr. Joshua Anah, admitted negligence in the calibration of the machines and in the training of the technicians using them. He was given a 3-year suspended sentence for the charges of manslaughter and destroying evidence. He was sentenced to a fixed 18-month prison term, fined €10,000 (~$13,500), and banned for 5 years from practicing medicine.

Strict measures are in place to prevent treatment errors, according to a statement released by the French Society of Oncologic Radiotherapy (Société francaise de radiotherapie oncologique). There has been an increase in radiotherapy staff nationwide since 2006, and radiotherapy quality-assurance staff were established at many centers in France in 2011 and 2012 to improve safety awareness.

Surgical Items Left Behind

Another a case involving medical negligence during prostate cancer surgery, this time in Germany, has been making headlines. His family is suing the unnamed hospital where he underwent surgery for prostate cancer. According to a report published January 15 in the Mail Online, the surgery was routine, but the 74-year-old patient was left in "appalling agony." Subsequent surgery found 16 items from an operating theatre in his body, including a needle, a bandage, a compress, several swabs, and a fragment of a surgical mask. The patient needed 2 more operations, which he survived, but the prostate cancer spread and he subsequently died.

His family has launched a lawsuit claiming damages from the hospital. A lawyer representing the family claims there has been "gross negligence here, which most probably led to complications and possibly a quicker death."