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Radiotherapy Sets Off Airport Security Screening

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This was news to me, which came out in the British Medical Journal editorial today. [1] The BMJ publised a case report of a man who received radiation therapy (radioiodine) to treat his overactive thyroid gland, thyrotoxicosis. [2] Unfortunately, he wasn't told that 6 weeks later, the radiation wouldn't have degraded enough to slip under the radar of Orlando airport security. If he had been carrying documentation of his radiation treatment, he could have saved himself "much embarrassment." Hoorray for Homeland Security's increased sensitivity after 9-11. This serves as a reminder for those travelling, to keep a copy of your medical record if there are these kinds of significant treatments in your history.

How else could one have streamlined the "long period of investigation" that was necessary to clear up these kinds of misunderstandings? One way would be to grant Electronic Health Record (EHR) access to the investigators. An EHR is a combination of the physician authored Electronic Medical Record (EMR) as well as patient access through a Personal Health Record (PHR). PHRs provide patients with read-only access to the physician's documentation of their care, and could have been proof to the investigators that this patient did indeed receive radiation therapy when he claimed to have. PHRs are often designed to allow emergency access to patient's records to ER physicians, so they could be engineered to give access to investigators as well, with consent from the patient. PHRs can provide interaction with physicians as well, but I'll save that for another article.

This is of personal interest to me since both my dad and father-in-law have received radiation therapy for cancer. I remember that shortly afterwards, they needed to wear lead aprons before playing with my infant & toddler. But before many weeks passed, they both went on international flights without incident. I suspect the dose of radiation has a lot to do with tripping the alarms, and I'll be sure to remind my patients who travel a lot to be aware of this fact.

1. Radiotherapy patients can trigger airport radiation alarms
BMJ 2006 333: doi:10.1136/bmj.333.7562.0-a

2. Triggering radiation alarms after radioiodine treatment
Kalyan Kumar Gangopadhyay, Francis Sundram, and Parijat De
BMJ 2006 333: 293-294

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MD, FACP, FASN

Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.

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