An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents

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An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents -- Part III
Nancy Leveson, University of Washington
Clark S. Turner, University of California, Irvine
Reprinted with permission, IEEE Computer, Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1993, pp. 18-41. Recall that the Tyler error occurred when the operator made an entry indicating the mode/energy, went to the command line, then moved the cursor up to change the mode/energy, and returned to the command line all within 8 seconds. Since the magnet setting takes about 8 seconds and Magnet does not recognize edits after the first execution of Ptime, the editing had been completed by the return to Datent, which never detected that it had occurred. Part of the problem was fixed after the accident by clearing the bending-magnet variable at the end of Magnet (after all the magnets have been set) instead of at the end of Ptime. But this was not the only problem. Upon exit from the Magnet subroutine, the data-entry subroutine (Datent) checks the data-entry completion variable. If it indicates that data entry is complete, Datent sets Tphase to 3 and Datent is not entered again. If it is not set, Datent leaves Tphase unchanged, which means it will eventually be rescheduled. But the data-entry completion variable only indicates that the cursor has been down to the command line, not that it is still there. A potential race condition is set up. To fix this, AECL introduced another shared variable controlled by the keyboard handler task that indicates the cursor is not positioned on the command line. If this variable is set, then prescription entry is still in progress and the value of Tphase is left unchanged. Government and user response. The FDA does not approve each new medical device on the market: All medical devices go through a classification process that determines the level of FDA approval necessary. Medical accelerators follow a procedure called pre-market notification before commercial distribution. In this process, the firm must establish that the product is substantially equivalent in safety and effectiveness to a product already on the market. If that cannot be done to the FDA's satisfaction, a pre-market approval is required. For the Therac-25, the FDA required only a pre-market notification. The agency is basically reactive to problems and requires manufacturers to report serious ones. Once a problem is identified in a radiation-emitting product, the FDA must approve the manufacturer's corrective action plan (CAP). The first reports of the Tyler accidents came to the FDA from the state of Texas health department, and this triggered FDA action. The FDA investigation was well under way when AECL produced a medical device report to discuss the details of the radiation overexposures at Tyler. The FDA declared the Therac-25 defective under the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act and ordered the firm to notify all purchasers, investigate the problem, determine a solution, and submit a corrective action plan for FDA approval. The final CAP consisted of more than 20 changes to the system hardware and software, plus modifications to the system documentation and manuals. Some of these changes were unrelated to the specific accidents, but were improvements to the general machine safety. The full implementation of the CAP, including an extensive safety analysis, was not complete until more than two years after the Tyler accidents. AECL made its accident report to the FDA on April 15, 1986. On that same date, AECL sent a letter to each Therac user recommending a temporary "fix" to the machine that would allow continued clinical use. The letter (shown in its complete form) read as follows: SUBJECT: CHANGE IN OPERATING PROCEDURES FOR THE THERAC 25 LINEAR ACCELERATOR Effective immediately, and until further notice, the key used for moving the cursor back through the prescription sequence (i.e., cursor "UP" inscribed with an upward pointing arrow) must not be used for editing or any other purpose. To avoid...
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