Patient Safety Paramount For Radiation Therapists

  • Article by: NANCY CROTTI , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: September 16, 2009 - 4:26 PM

Radiation therapists combine a lot of patient contact with technical savvy and teamwork to treat cancer and some noncancerous conditions. They work with radiation oncologists, physicists and dosimetrists to make sure patients receive the proper dosage of radiation on the exact location of each patient's body.

Patricia Fountinelle's children have received baby blankets from grateful patients, most of who had cancer and underwent daily radiation treatments for several weeks at a terrifying time in their lives.

Fountinelle, program director of the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview School of Radiation Therapy, says radiation therapists combine patient care and precise technical work.

"You really do connect with your patients," she says. "They teach you so much about life because of how they handle what they're going through."

Qualities To Excel At Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapists must be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, work independently and as part of a team, be extremely honest and report any mistakes so treatments may be adjusted for patient safety.

Radiation treatments comprise up to several minutes of a beam from a linear accelerator focused on a marked area of the patient's body. Radiation oncologists work with physicists and dosimetrists to determine the orientation of the beam. Radiation therapists use fluoroscopy, X-rays or CT scans to ensure proper patient positioning, then aim the radiation beam at the marked area.

"There are a lot of different parameters that have to be set up each day before we begin the radiation treatment," explains Marie DiBona, a radiation therapist at the St. Paul Cancer Center, a joint venture of Minnesota Oncology (www.mnoncology.com) and United Hospital (www.unitedhospital.com).

"We do that by taking X-rays daily or weekly, depending on doctors' orders, to verify the patient's position," she continues. "We compare the X-rays on the machine to the ones from the CT scans to make sure that they match. If we have to fine-tune anything, we do that before ever giving a radiation treatment."

Radiation therapists then step outside the room and communicate with the patient via cameras and an intercom system, says DiBona, the St. Paul Cancer Center's clinical coordinator for interns from Fairview and other programs.

Where The Schools And Jobs Are

The Fairview School annually accepts six to eight students who have completed certain paraprofessional requirements (www.fairview.org/recruitment/Education_and_Training). Argosy University in Eagan (www.argosy.edu) and Mayo School of Health Sciences in Rochester (www.mayo.edu) also offer radiation therapy programs.

Fairview students attend classes two days a week and spend the remaining days in clinical training at area hospitals. They must complete 54 competencies in 10 clinical settings before taking the national examination administered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (www.arrt.org). New graduates may earn about $23 an hour in the Twin Cities, where the job market has tightened in the past few years.

"We try to get our graduates to look everywhere for employment," says Fountinelle. "All six of my graduates from last December are employed, though not all in Minnesota."


Nancy Crotti is a freelance writer from St. Paul.
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