Ever wonder what would happen if you didn’t wear the lead apron they put on you at the dentist’s office or in the operating room?

What would actually happen to your body? Better yet, even if you wore basic protections, how would your body be impacted by routine exposure to radiation over the years?

These questions may be passing thoughts for us as patients, but they are real concerns for healthcare professionals nationwide.

The effects of prolonged radiation on physicians is the subject of the two-hour, six-part series Scattered Denial: The Occupational Dangers of Radiation, which was released on YouTube late last month. 

The docuseries features David Rizik, MD, the chief scientific officer and director of structural heart and coronary interventions at HonorHealth Research Institute. Rizik also served as executive producer of the series, which will be reformatted as an hour-long documentary airing nationally on PBS in July.

Radiation exposure meets football

For Rizik, who’s an Emmy winner in addition to being a respected interventional cardiologist, long-term radiation exposure from cardiac catheterization procedures poses serious health risks to HCPs. 

He told MM+M that the current protective measures are inadequate and have contributed to many HCPs developing cancers, orthopedic injuries and other health issues that have cut their careers short. 

One example explored throughout Scattered Denial is the case of Edward Diethrich, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon who died from a brain tumor in 2017 at the age of 81. The docuseries asserts that Diethrich’s death was caused – in part – by his years of radiation exposure.

To provide context for the workplace dangers faced by clinicians, Rizik drew a comparison between long-term radiation exposure and the effects of head injuries on players in the National Football League (NFL). 

The physician acknowledged that, early in his career, he accepted the lead apron as adequate protection. He didn’t consider the long-term risks, just as NFL rookies aren’t likely to concern themselves with the future adverse effects of concussions as they focus on making an impact on the field.

“It isn’t until years later when you realize how much radiation you’ve actually taken to your head, your neck, your arms and your legs,” Rizik explained. “You’re like the 30-year-old football player who realized, ‘I’ve been hitting the guy across from me pretty hard for a decade, and it’s starting to show.’”

Gender imbalance worsens

Beyond the physical effects of radiation, Rizik said health concerns also have had a chilling effect on women’s decision to join the medical profession.

Radiation risks, he noted, have discouraged some prospective HCPs, specifically women who want to have children, from entering certain specialties like interventional cardiology. In turn, that’s affected the gender balance

Currently, only 4% of interventional cardiologists are women, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. 

“If a known, relative lack of safety uniquely dissuades women from entering our field, our specialty’s talent pool will never be as diverse and as rich as it could be,” said Rizik, adding that medical societies, the federal government and hospital CEOs should all be part of the solution.

Absent real action on the issue, not only is the healthcare workforce headed for a further decline in the number of women among its ranks. Rizik said more HCPs overall are likely to exit the field, too.

What can be done?

The problems identified in Scattered Denial warrant attention from a host of healthcare stakeholders in order to make meaningful progress, noted Rizik. 

That said, they shouldn’t be seen as some sort of moonshot ambition, he suggested, but rather as part of something more personal and pragmatic.

“Zero radiation to the healthcare worker is not an aspirational goal. It is a moral imperative,” he said.

To that end, he urged lawmakers to enact policy changes that protect interventional cardiologists in ways that are similar to other hazardous occupations.

He also called on medical societies, such as the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, to take action in the form of enacting stronger positions on the issue of radiation exposure.

Rizik saved his most pointed criticisms for hospital CEOs and executives of provider organizations, claiming they are “asleep at the wheel,” despite being alerted to this problem by doctors. He compared the medical profession to auto workers, asserting that if the latter group was exposed to the same degree of radiation, the assembly lines would grind to a halt.

To remedy these risks, Rizik concluded, health systems should invest in new shielding technology that provides full-body protection without requiring workers to wear lead aprons that can cause orthopedic injuries over the long run.