UW-Madison: Center helps make radiation treatment for cancer safer

CONTACT: Frank Rath, fjrath@wisc.edu, (608) 263-5989; Bruce Thomadsen, brthomad@wisc.edu, (608) 263-4183

MADISON – A patient preparing for cancer treatment that uses radiation has plenty to worry about. Getting the right treatment every time – just the right dose in just the right place – should be taken for granted. And yet in radiotherapy, as in every other human activity, errors happen.

Tracking down and eliminating errors in a way that simultaneously prevents further problems is the stock-in-trade of the Center for the Assessment of Radiological Sciences, an organization born at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012.

“The goal is to work with our clients, who sign a contract to enable this relationship,” says founding director Bruce Thomadsen, professor of medical physics at UW-Madison. “If an issue is reported related to the size or placement of a radiation dose, or other aspect of a treatment, we work with the client, going through all the data we have collected about the event.”

CARS incorporates reports from member hospitals and clinics into its database, says Thomadsen. “These incidents aren’t common, but they do happen, and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise.”

CARS does not exist to exact punishment or enforce legal sanctions, but to understand and prevent, says Thomadsen. The professor has spent his 46-year career in the safety of medical devices that emit radiation and has just become president-elect of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine.

In their quest to found a center of excellence in radiation treatment, Thomadsen and Rock Mackie, a professor emeritus of medical physics, collaborated with Frank Rath, a faculty associate in the College of Engineering. Rath has expertise in the techniques, tools and methods for improving quality and safety in complex technology. He calls himself “the risk-assessment guy on campus. I use industrial tools to improve process quality and safety.”

At CARS, these tools are used in a “root-cause analysis of the incident,” says Thomadsen. “We discuss what we think is the underlying cause, and start a discussion with the client on how to improve quality.”