Medical Malpractice Claims for X-Ray Overexposure

Patients left exposed to x-rays for extended periods of time can be harmed by radiation overdose, and the medical provider may be liable for negligence.

X-rays are one of the most common diagnostic tools available to health care providers. The technology is as basic as it is ubiquitous. Whether after a sports injury, at the dentist, or secondary to a digestive or respiratory illness, nearly everyone has had an x-ray at some point in time. And that means nearly everyone has assumed some degree of risk of radiation exposure.

When administered properly, X-rays are safe and effective. But when proper precautions are not taken during the X-ray process, radiation overdoses can occur, and can rise to the level of actionable medical malpractice. Read on to learn more about X-ray radiation overdose and potential medical malpractice claims.

What is an X-ray?

An "X-ray" is a diagnostic tool used by medical professionals to obtain views of internal body structures. In fact, what most of us refer to as an "X-ray" is technically called a "radiograph." The term "X-ray" refers to the specific type of radiation used to obtain the image. The views are obtained by focusing a concentrated beam of radiation at a particular area of the body, and utilizing either a special film or a computer to record an image.

Dense structures such as bones block most of the X-ray particles, and appear white on a radiograph. Internal organs and other structures appear in varying shades of gray. In some X-rays, a radioactive dye is used to provide contrast. X-rays are typically ordered by treating physicians, administered by technicians, and read (or misread) by radiologists in conjunction with treating physicians.

What Causes X-ray Radiation Overdose?

An X-ray radiation overdose can occur due to several different factors. Normally, a patient's body is shielded with a lead cover in all areas except for the specific area where the X-ray is being taken. Failure to properly shield the body can result in a radiation overdose. So, too, can an improperly calibrated X-ray machine. If the machine is not calibrated properly, the X-ray dosage could be excessive and result in an overdose. Improperly shielded X-ray rooms can also result in X-ray radiation overdoses. An X-ray radiation overdose can result in a number of adverse health conditions including organ and tissue damage, brain damage, and cancer.

Proving an X-Ray Overdose was the Result of Malpractice

Successful medical malpractice cases are contingent upon the proof of a few key elements.

In the case of alleged X-ray overdose, a plaintiff must establish:

  • that the health care provider had a duty to comport with the medical standard of care pertaining to X-ray administration
  • that the provider's conduct fell short of that standard, and
  • that the patient was injured as a result.

This is more difficult than it may seem, because in some situations the effects of an X-ray overdose are not discernible for months or even years. Establishing a causal connection between cancer and an X-ray overdose, for example, can be exceedingly difficult if the cancer doesn't crop up until several years later. Cases involving tissue or organ damage are slightly easier to prove, as the injuries may manifest themselves much faster.

The key to proving any malpractice case is documentation. This is no different in an X-ray radiation overdose case. Since X-rays are, for the most part, very safe and deal with very low concentrations of radiation, it is essential that there is some kind of documentation noting when an X-ray was taken so it can be compared to the onset of overdose symptoms or illness. Absent some kind of documentation (most commonly in the form of medical records) it can be very difficult to establish the causation prong that is necessary in every medical negligence claim.

Is It Really Malpractice?

It's important to point out that, to be considered malpractice, an X-ray overdose must be caused by a health care provider's medical negligence. That means equipment failure, improper calibration or some other non-medical cause of overexposure isn't necessarily medical malpractice (though it could be a product liability claim).

However, if a treating radiologist, doctor, nurse or X-ray tech does something that violates the standard of care pertaining to X-ray administration, malpractice may be an option. Whether a malpractice claim may be filed is largely a question of state law.

X-ray technicians, in particular, are regulated differently from state to state. And they do not carry the same licensure and/or educational requirements as physicians or nurses. As a result, your ability to sue the X-ray tech may be limited, or it may not financially viable. However, depending upon the law of your state, you may be able to sue the hospital or clinic that employs the tech under theories of vicarious liability.

In dental settings, dentists normally do not administer their own x-rays. Dental assistants or dental hygienists administer x-rays, which are in turn read by the dentist. Dental hygienists, as well as dentists, are considered care providers and are subject to licensure requirements and potential malpractice suits. In a dental X-ray overdose situation, it is possible to sue hygienists as well as dentists. The difficulty in proving a causal relationship is still present.

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