By Kate Madden Yee, staff writer

June 18, 2012 -- Radiologists may be the critical link between ordering physicians and patients, but their role is not clearly understood by the patient population -- and that's bad news for the ongoing vitality of the profession, according to a new study published in this month's Academic Radiology.

"Radiologists have traditionally remained 'behind the curtain' when it comes to patient care, the voice without a face," wrote lead author Dr. Melanie Kuhlman and colleagues from the University of Arizona.

The researchers surveyed patients undergoing outpatient CT and MRI exams regarding their knowledge of who radiologists are and from whom they would prefer to receive their imaging results. Between February and March 2011, Kuhlman's team distributed hard-copy surveys to all patients ages 21 or older who were having outpatient CT or MRI exams. The team received 237 surveys, for a 47% response rate (Academic Radiology, June 2012, Vol. 19:6, pp. 646-650).

For exams with abnormal results, 77% of survey respondents said they would prefer to get the results from the ordering physician, whereas 12% prefer the radiologist and 11% prefer the primary care provider, the team found. However, a majority of patients also said they prefer to get their test results as quickly as possible, no matter who delivers them (73%), followed by the primary care provider, even if it takes longer (16%), and the radiologist, even if it takes longer (11%).

Additional results were as follows:

  • 60% of the patients surveyed identified radiologists as specially trained physicians, while 36% said that a radiologist is a "technologist who performs the exam" and 4% said that a radiologist is a registered nurse specially trained in radiology.
  • 64% of patients surveyed stated that they would like to meet the radiologist interpreting their exam, while 36% responded that they would not.
  • For exams with normal results, 41% of survey respondents said they would prefer to get results in the mail, 34% by phone, 16% in person, and 9% by email or text message.
  • For exams with abnormal results, 40% of survey respondents said they would prefer to get results in person, 32% by phone, 24% by mail, and 4% by email.

Is direct communication the answer?

Despite efforts by institutions such as the American College of Radiology (ACR) to define radiologists' role in healthcare for the public, the position of radiologists continues to be undervalued and misunderstood, Kuhlman and colleagues wrote. To address this, patients need to be educated on who, exactly, is reading and interpreting their imaging exams. One way to do this is to begin pushing for direct communication between patients and radiologists.

"Whether in person or through reports, by communicating directly with patients, radiologists add value by providing accurate, authoritative information," the authors wrote. "As radiologists, we need to re-evaluate the established model of communication for reporting radiologic results and consider the positive impact on patient care and on the vitality of the radiology profession by directly communicating with patients."

Copyright © 2012

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