What's in a word? Avoiding confusion on radiology reports

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Much has been made recently about the language of radiology reporting, including discussion surrounding the  inclusion or exclusion of certain words and phrases in final reports.

But being aware of double meanings associated with commonly used terms—such as the word “stable”— is also critical when creating reports, wrote Samuel Kuzminski, MD, of Duke University Medical Center Durham, N.C., in a recent article published online in the  Journal of American College of Radiology.

“Many radiologists use the word stable to mean unchanged from the previous imaging study,” he wrote. “In some contexts, however, the word stable has a different connotation. With regard to the spine, for instance, stability and instability may refer to the ability of the spinal elements to maintain a normal alignment despite changes in position.”

This difference in meaning could cause significant confusion for both doctors and patients who read the final radiology report, said Kuzminksi.

“Consider that a degenerated spine with segmental instability could be stable from the prior imaging study, although it is not mechanically stable,” he wrote. “In this case, the word unchanged is clearer and hence the better choice."

Radiologists must choose their words carefully to avoid these potential misinterpretations and subsequent errors in care, Kuzminski concludes.

“Particularly when it comes to patients reading their reports, the choice of even a single word may be critical to their expectations for future care,” he wrote. “A well-crafted report clearly states the intended message, leaving no room for alternative interpretation.”