Prostate Cancer Treatment Problems at Philadelphia VA Medical Center

A VA Hospital Cancer Unit in Philadelphia is under investigation after it allegedly botched 92 out of 116 attempts at a prostate cancer treatment known as brachytherapy, where patients were exposed to radiation.

A New York Times article reports that doctors and administration at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia covered up failed prostate cancer treatment surgeries over a six-year period. Most of the surgeries were performed by Dr. Gary D. Kao, who appears to have routinely implanted radioactive metal seeds meant to treat prostate cancer into the wrong organs of veterans seeking treatment, the newspaper reported.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees radioactive medical procedures, is investigating the hospital’s cancer unit and has reportedly found a number of problems. There was no peer review of the cancer unit, and no oversight by the hospital, investigators have found. The prostate unit has been closed since mid-2008 as a result of the ongoing investigation.

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The majority of problems surround a procedure called brachytherapy, where radioactive metal “seeds” are placed in a pattern inside the prostate with needles. The metal seeds create a cloud of radiation that conforms to the prostate and is tailored to attack and contain the cancerous cells.

At the Philadelphia VA cancer unit, investigators have uncovered a number of incidents where patients received radiation doses that were too weak, or where the metal seeds were inserted into the wrong locations, such as the bladder or rectum. The unit continued to do the surgeries for a year even after a device that measured the radiation in patients broke down, giving them no way to check their work.

Some of the errors were not found for years, and many veterans have had to undergo repeat implants or surgeries to mitigate damage caused by the VA cancer treatment problems in Philadelphia.

NRC officials say their own regulators let Dr. Kao rewrite surgical plans on two occasions where he had implanted the seeds in the wrong location. In one instance, the majority of 40 radioactive seeds bound for a patient’s prostate ended up in his bladder instead.

VA hospital officials in Philadelphia have admitted that they failed to supervise Kao’s unit, and said Kao no longer works at the hospital and would not be allowed to return. Several other staff members have also been removed from their positions at the hospital. Nationally, the VA has suspended brachytherapy implants at hospitals in Jackson, MS and Cincinnati, OH, in addition to Philadelphia.

The investigation and report about these VA health care problems come on the heels of congressional hearing last week that was highly critical of the quality of VA health centers across the country. The hearing was held in response to contamination issues at VA clinics in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida that exposed thousands of veterans to unsanitary endoscopic equipment and may have cause several to develop HIV or hepatitis.

“Exposing our veterans to that type of risk is unacceptable … and frankly, I’m outraged that any of our nation’s heroes were potentially infected or that they even have to worry about that possibility,” said Rep. Harry E. Mitchell (D-AZ), who chairs an oversight and investigation subcommittee for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, at the hearing last week.

Months after the VA endoscopy problems were discovered, follow-up inspections revealed that more than half of Veteran Affairs facilities continued to have inadequate health safety procedures.

8 Comments

  • JeffreyJune 25, 2021 at 8:20 pm

    I had prostate cancer surgery at the Philadelphia VAMC in 2016 and have had health problems associated with the surgery ever since. We both regret ever getting involved with them without having gotten a second opinion first from a Medicare Doctor. Now we can just hope our Medicare Doctor can up with a solution to the problem caused by the Philadelvia VAMC.

  • KnightFebruary 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    My brother was treated at the VA Medical Center in Atlanta for prostate cancer. He underwent eight weeks radiation therpy during the summer of 2010. He is now much worst off than he was prior to the treatment. The treatments caused radiation burns in his rectum and serious additional medical problems while VA sent him home to fend for himself.

  • JOHNOctober 19, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    HAD PROSTATE CANCER ,HAD SEED IMPLANTS BY KAO. WILL NOT CALL HIM DR BECAUSE OF HISMISTATES. NOW HAVE A RECTAL SORE FROM MISPLACED SEEDS.AM ABOUT TO TRY HYPERBARIC OXYGEN THERAPY FO THIRTY DAYS.

  • vietnam war heroSeptember 4, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    i have had problem's also at vamc phil, i had pain n both knees, complain 4 2yr's health care provider say there is nothing wrong w knee's went er xray something is wrong . sent to private orth surgn, ask vamc to order mri, health care provider refuse went to ortho doc order mri torn municus both knee's arepermanent dammage, have had 3 surgury/ file ch38,1151, going back to 2000 1st tr[Show More]i have had problem's also at vamc phil, i had pain n both knees, complain 4 2yr's health care provider say there is nothing wrong w knee's went er xray something is wrong . sent to private orth surgn, ask vamc to order mri, health care provider refuse went to ortho doc order mri torn municus both knee's arepermanent dammage, have had 3 surgury/ file ch38,1151, going back to 2000 1st transfer of va c file/records we vet must help each other va would rather for class action law suites than indiv lawsuit's../// NEXT THREAT'S / WITH USEING OTHER VET'S OF THE VIETNAM CLAIM'S WHICH ARE SERVICE CONNECTED. ONLY LESS THAN 25% served in vietnam most are sub are only vietnam era vet, most served in euro but have use combat vet's war experiences as a basic of thier claim

  • johnJune 25, 2009 at 2:43 am

    I have prostate cancer in Pa. and they sent me to Brooklyn Va. for a consult for seed therapy. I will not do it now after hearing what happened in Phila. Va. I will probaly die with the cancer. Only 56 years old.

  • DragonflyJune 24, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I had the brachytherapy at the Phila. VA and have lost all confidence in the ability of the VA Hospitals anywhere. If Congress wants to do something to improve health care for veterans, provide the same health care every Congressman and elected federal government official has. Obama should be careful of Bethesda Hospital, unless they bring in special doctors just for him.

  • Call me Spooky, for nowJune 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Yeah I had brachytherpy, VA, & have a lot of pain. Perhaps I need a lawyer.

  • BernardJune 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Its a shame that all VA medical services provided at the VA will suffer a bit from this terrible problem; when the truth is, in spite of the general consciences on care at the VA; the service I find to be top notch; I would rather go there than to my private doctor because the service is good and I need not travel to other places for x-rays or blood checks. And the Doctors and nurses are top notc[Show More]Its a shame that all VA medical services provided at the VA will suffer a bit from this terrible problem; when the truth is, in spite of the general consciences on care at the VA; the service I find to be top notch; I would rather go there than to my private doctor because the service is good and I need not travel to other places for x-rays or blood checks. And the Doctors and nurses are top notch, thorough, and concerned.

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