Since 2008 the IAEA, in collaboration with the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology (ESTRO), has been training radiation therapy technologists, giving them the tools they need to train others in European countries.
Well trained and educated radiation therapy technologists are critical to the effective execution of cancer care in any country, since they are responsible for the daily delivery of radiation to cancer patients.
They need to be able to interpret the treatment plan prescribed by a radiation oncologist, understand the technical complexity of the equipment, together with the clinical and psychosocial status of each patient, and apply this knowledge in the preparation and delivery of treatment.
Mary Coffey, Adjunct Professor at Trinity College in Ireland, who helped conceptualize the IAEA training initiative, says, "What we want to achieve is that eventually the education programmes will be radiotherapy specific and at university level, so that the cancer patients get the absolute optimum treatment delivered by people who understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, and what happens if they don't do it correctly."
So far 20 countries have participated, developing and delivering approximately 40 courses.
In developed countries, at least 50% of all patients with cancer need radiation therapy at some point. In low and middle-income countries where cancer is often discovered later, this figure may be much higher, with 70% to 80% of cancer patients needing radiotherapy, which is used to cure some cancers and manage pain.
Despite this, the availability of radiotherapy equipment in many countries has been, and still is, very limited.
Therefore few professionals in these countries - radiation oncologists, medical physicists, oncology nurses and radiation therapy technologists - are well educated in the utilization of radiotherapy for cancer treatment.
In many instances radiotherapy was delivered by people who learnt "on the job". Where there was formal education, instruction for radiation therapy technologists was a small subset of another professional course such as diagnostic radiography.
To address the problem of radiotherapy's unavailability in developing Member States, the IAEA has provided equipment and supported governments seeking to procure equipment, leading to a marked increase in the number of radiotherapy machines used worldwide.
As such, countries where radiotherapy machines are now becoming more numerous and more accessible, also face a further problem.
Over the last 20 years radiotherapy equipment and technology has become much more complex. Treatment can now be tailored much more closely around the tumour, thereby delivering a much higher radiation dose to the tumour whilst reducing the dose to any surrounding non-tumour tissue, including vital organs. This results in fewer side-effects and higher likelihood of the patient's cancer being cured.
Now the need for accuracy of preparation and delivery in radiotherapy is even more urgent and education programmes must be tailored to ensure that graduates are competent to work at this level.
"The IAEA believes that all cancer patients deserve the same level of care, no matter where they live, or where they come from. That's why the skill level of practitioners in this field has been and will continue to be so important to us," says Eduardo Rosenblatt, Head of the IAEA Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy Section.