It's time for radiologists to use more common words that patients can understand when they read their lumbar spine MRI and other exam results, concluded a study published online January 8 in the American Journal of Roentgenology.
Using a series of tests to gauge readability level, researchers found that their sample of radiologists wrote about results at a 12th-grade level, six grades above the recommended level from two healthcare organizations.
"As patients increasingly read their radiology reports through online portals, consideration should be made of patients' ability to read and comprehend these complex medical documents," wrote the group led by Dr. Paul Hyunsoo Yi from the department of radiology and radiological science at Johns Hopkins University.
Without a doubt, patients are becoming more involved in their healthcare, and in many cases they are able to access their imaging reports through patient portals. But the average adult in the U.S. reads at or below an eighth-grade level.
Therefore, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association recommend that patient reports and educational materials be written at a sixth-grade level. It then becomes more incumbent upon radiologists to tailor their reports for better communication with patients.
"Because a patient's ability to comprehend a radiology report is limited by his or her ability to read it, we sought to assess the readability levels of lumbar spine MRI reports," the authors noted.
To see how well radiologists are relating to patients at their facility, Yi and colleagues reviewed 110 lumbar spine MRI reports from eight musculoskeletal radiologists and three neuroradiologists. They determined readability based on five quantitative tests that have been used in prior research to evaluate patient education materials.
In general, the tests rate readability based on several factors, including the total number of characters, words, sentences, and paragraphs within a text.
All five literary barometers indicated that the radiologists' lumbar spine MRI reports had a mean readability level higher than the 12th grade. Only one report was written at or below the eighth-grade level, and no reports were at or below the sixth-grade level.
"Not surprisingly, patients often find radiology reports difficult to understand because of the technical nature of words used in reports as well as the overall length of reports," Yi and colleagues wrote.
So how do you remedy the wordsmithing problem? One approach is to use simpler words. Go with "swelling" instead of "edema," Yi and colleagues suggested.
"Conversely, many radiologic terms have few syllables but are likely unfamiliar to patients, such as 'enhance,' which could result in low readability levels but impaired comprehension," they wrote. "Other potential solutions to improve readability include writing in a concise, conversational style as well as incorporating visual features, such as diagrams and graphs."