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Promoting the Safe Use of Radiation in Medicine

Radiation Protection of Patients

The use of radiation in medicine is expected to keep rising, since benefits to patients and physicians are great and technologies are gaining wider use. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

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Around the world, millions of patients benefit from diagnosis and treatment involving X-rays and radioactive substances. To help promote patient safety, the IAEA has teamed with the World Health Organization and a dozen other partners through an International Action Plan to better inform physicians, patients and care givers about the importance of radiation protection in medical care.

Among channels of information is the newly developed website that focuses on the radiation protection of patients. The website is designed to serve as an effective clearinghouse of practical information, with the initial emphasis on informing physicians engaged in the use of radiation for medical care.

Already, the initiative has been cited as helping patients - an angioplasty patient, for example, developed an ulcerating injury that was misdiagnosed as a staph infection. When the wound worsened, an emergency room physician diagnosed it as a burn of unknown origin. The patient then found reports on the IAEA.org website about a meeting on radiation protection that helped her and her cardiologist accurately diagnose and treat the real problem. (See Story Resources).

The topical website is an outgrowth of a comprehensive International Action Plan developed over the past years for the radiological protection of patients. It was established together with international and regional organizations including the World Health Organization, European Commission, and International Commission on Radiological Protection. The pages feature a variety of areas, such as radiography, digital radiology, mammography, computed tomography, interventional cardiology, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine.

Background Trends and Developments

In recent years, the IAEA has focused increasing attention on the radiation protection of patients. Trends and developments influencing action include:

  • Medical applications of radiation are widespread. Among the leading diagnostic tools are X-ray exams, about 2000 million of which are done each year. Additionally, 32 million procedures involving nuclear medicine - whereby medical radioisotopes are given to patients - are carried out. Between four and five million patients requiring cancer treatment receive radiotherapy.


  • The use of radiation in medicine is expected to keep rising, since benefits to patients are great and technologies gain wider use. In the last two decades, for example, the use of computed tomography has increased eight-fold worldwide; patient exposure is, therefore, extremely important as it amounts to about 150 times occupational exposure.


  • Medical exposures to radiation can vary considerably. Surveys in the US, UK and other countries have shown that patient exposure for the same examination in the same hospital for a normal sized patient can vary by a factor of 20 or more.


  • The IAEA action plan for radiation protection of patients draws upon established international safety standards and involves the collaboration of more than a dozen organizations and professional bodies worldwide. They include the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization, European Commission, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, European Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, International Commission on Radiological Protection, International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements, International Electrotechnical Commission, International Organization for Standards, International Organization for Medical Physics, International Radiation Protection Association, International Society of Radiographers and Radiological Technologists, International Society of Radiology, and World Federation of Nuclear Medicine and Biology.