Radiation exposure is an everyday fact of life in hospitals, but puts staff and patients at risk of real health problems down the road. 

Hospitals need to bolster PPE usage, improve education, and embrace new technology to limit radiation exposure for patients and staff. 

In this guide, hospital staff will learn about the radiation risks in their everyday work, what the actual danger is, and how to lower the potential damage for themselves and their patients.

What are the radiation risks in a hospital?

There are a few sources of dangerous radiation in most hospitals, and neither patients nor staff members are always fully protected from the inherent risks. 

“Good” and bad radiation

Before we move forward, we’re going to clarify what we mean by “radiation” in the context of hospital risk. “Ionizing radiation” is the more dangerous form of radiation, encompassing x-rays, gamma rays, radon, and ultraviolet emissions. 

Too much ionizing radiation puts patients and hospital staff in danger by increasing DNA damage and the chance of developing cancer. 

In contrast, “non-ionizing radiation” is made up of electromagnetic emissions that are basically harmless. These emissions include visible light, radio waves, and infrared (heat), to name a few. In a hospital, this form of safe radiation occurs in MRI machines, which use magnetic fields and radio waves.

Ionizing radiation in a hospital

There are two primary vectors for ionizing radiation in a hospital: medical imaging and radiation therapy.

Medical imaging: CT scans, x-ray machines, and PET scans all use ionizing radiation in small doses to help diagnose medical conditions. 

Radiation therapy: Chemotherapy, targeted radiation, and gamma knife procedures all use ionizing radiation to treat cancer and other diseases.  

Neither of these sources of radiation is harmful in small doses. But when staff members are exposed every day when operating the machines, and patients with chronic issues have to receive more than the usual number of scans, the risk of damage grows into a significant problem. 

The effects of radiation on patients and staff

Over the life of a patient, the radiation absorbed by CT scans is projected to cause cancer in anywhere from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 500 people. This may not seem like a lot, but consider that according to the same study, CT scans are responsible for nearly half of all collective radiation absorbed by the populace from all x-ray scans.  

Though low doses of radiation are not dangerous in themselves, over-exposure to ionizing radiation can be extremely harmful in the long term. 

The more ionizing radiation a human is exposed to, the more their DNA becomes damaged. The more DNA damage a cell has, the more likely it is to grow and replicate into cancerous tissue. 

The standard amount of “safe” ionizing radiation a human can receive is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year. Going over 20 mSv a year for five years causes cancer rates to noticeably jump up to a 1 in 1000 chance of fatal cancer.

To put this number in perspective, you can get 20 mSv of radiation from around 2 or 3 CT scans in a single year. More scans in a year than most people receive: far less than patients with chronic illnesses might be exposed to. 

Staff may not be getting the same scans, but they’re exposed to similar dangers in their work environment. According to the same NCBI study linked above, scattered X-Rays and other radiation bounces around the room during imaging procedures, and that dangerous ionizing radiation is blocked only by the PPE that healthcare professionals may be neglecting.

Mitigating radiation risk in hospitals

Reducing the risks of radiation damage for patients and healthcare staff takes a three-pronged approach. 

We need thorough education on radiation and the procedures that produce it, stronger personal protective equipment (PPE) compliance, and cutting-edge technology to make imaging safer and more efficient. 

PPE compliance could be better

Hospitals have methods to protect staff and patients from radiation exposure during scans, but the 2021 NCBI paper “Radiation Safety and Protection” (linked above) shows that this equipment isn’t always applied in the most effective way. 

All stats below are from the same paper:

Leaded glasses protect an imaging tech’s eyes from radiation, but appear to have only a 2.5% to 5% compliance rate. This is particularly unfortunate because it’s been shown that 90% of radiation exposure to the eyes can be prevented by leaded eyeglasses. 

Dosimeters are devices worn by staff who are frequently exposed to harmful radiation. These devices warn someone when they’re approaching dangerous levels of absorption. However, it’s reported that 50% of physicians who qualify to wear them are either not doing so or wearing them improperly. 

Lead aprons and garments protect patients and staff from unintended radiation exposure, but they may not be getting the maintenance required. These lead garments need to be checked twice a year for cracks and breaks, and subjected to tests that they’re still blocking radiation. These garments protect patients and staff alike, and should receive more frequent testing and maintenance.

Technology helps find and plug holes in radiation safety procedures

The right technology can prevent radiation risks before they happen, by being safer and more efficient. 

Saint Thomas’ Midtown Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee has found success by having its staff members wear sensor badges tied to a monitoring system called METER. This monitoring system tracks staff across multiple sites and gathers data about how much exposure everyone has received at each site. Not only does this improve safety for individuals, it helps the hospital spot where radiation risks may be highest in order to make changes. 

Another technology that prevents radiation risk is the bleeding-edge process of “ghost imaging” (also known as “ghost tomography”). This is a form of 3D imaging that uses two x-ray beams, split between the patient and a sensor panel, to provide the same accuracy levels of a normal x-ray scan but with far less radiation exposure. 

Even something as simple as switching to properly-shielded medical grade monitors for imaging systems can reduce extended exposure, and reduce the electrical interference that can extend imaging sessions or make results less accurate. 

Radiation education

The final and likely most effective way to protect hospital patients and staff from radiation is to simply provide more accurate (and more frequent) education on radiation risks. 

In NCBI’s “Radiation Safety and Protection” paper, it was found that a 20-minute instructional video for the relevant hospital staff dropped the total time it takes to perform fluoroscopy by 30 to 50%. That’s a huge reduction in radiation exposure time for patients, and all it took was a short video.

They also found that the scattered radiation that puts staff in danger from x-rays could be reduced 400% by simply doubling the distance they stand from the x-ray machine. 

Radiation protection protocols should also be available in easy-to-access, comprehensive digital formats like Stanford’s Radiation Protection manual. This manual is available on their website, is easy to access, and is split into multiple topics and pages that can be quickly read and understood by hospital staff.  

Lowering radiation risk and increasing efficiency with better computers

Increasing PPE compliance, reducing exposure time, and improving education are simple and highly effective measures for lowering the risks of radiation in hospitals. 

To learn more about how radiological imaging processes can be improved by specialty healthcare computers or by integrating medical panel PCs into imaging equipment, contact an expert at Cybernet. 

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