Are radiology reports too difficult for patients to understand?

Although online portals allow some patients to easily access their radiology reports, a recent study published online Jan. 8 in the American Journal of Roentgenology found that lumbar spine MRI reports in particular are written at a reading level too advanced for the average patient to comprehend.  

The National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association recommend all patient education materials and reports be written at or below a six-grade reading level because the average U.S. adult reads at an eighth-grade level.  

However, prior studies have shown that patients often have difficulty understanding these reports because of complex language and terminology and report length, which can lead to poor comprehension, confusion and anxiety.  

For the study, researchers led by Paul Hyunsoo Yi, MD, a radiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, reviewed 110 lumbar spine MRI reports dictated by 11 radiologists (eight musculoskeletal radiologists and three neuroradiologists) at a single academic medical center.  

Each report was reviewed for readability using five quantitative readability tests: the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Flesch Reading Ease, Gunning Fog Index, Coleman-Liau Index and the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook.  

Overall, the average readability grade level of the lumbar spine MRI reports was greater than a 12th grade reading level. Only one report was written at or below an eighth level and no reports were written at or below sixth-grade level, according to the researchers.  

Potential solutions to incomprehensible patient radiology reports, the researchers explained, could include replacing complex terminology with simpler words, writing reports, using structured MRI report templates and granting patients access to their reports only after discussion with their ordering physician or a radiologist.  

“By considering the perspective of the patient when we dictate MRI and other radiology reports, we will best serve our patients both in body and in mind,” the researchers concluded.