Radiologists have an image problem


Here’s a question that has been debated for several years: Should radiologists talk to patients about their imaging results?

Citing several issues, I came down solidly on the “no” side in a 2014 blog post.

Two major radiology organizations have committees looking into the concept, and New York Times article said, “they hope to make their case [for it] by demonstrating how some radiologists have successfully managed to communicate with patients and by letting radiologists know this is something patients want.”

However, a recent paper presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Radiology raised a new issue.

Apparently patients need more basic information before talking to radiologists — namely what exactly is a radiologist and what does a radiologist do?

A group from the University of Virginia surveyed patients waiting to have radiologic studies performed and came up with some remarkable results. Of 477 patients surveyed, only 175 (36.7 percent) knew that a radiologist is a doctor, and 248 (52 percent) knew that radiologists interpret images.

Based on those findings, the investigators developed an educational program of PowerPoint slides which was shown to a new series of 333 patients in the waiting room. When surveyed after viewing it, 156 patients (47.7 percent) said they were aware that a radiologist is a doctor, and 206 (62.2 percent) knew that radiologists interpret images.

Both responses were significantly better after the educational presentation, but still, less than 50 percent of patients identified radiologists as doctors. Maybe the problem was the PowerPoint. Maybe radiologists need to wear scrubs or drape stethoscopes around their necks.

This is only a small study from one institution. Nevertheless, before taking the big step of talking with patients, it suggests radiologists need to do a better job of explaining who they are and what they do.

We surgeons think we have an image problem when people say to us, “Oh, are you just a general surgeon?” They don’t know what we do, but at least they know we are physicians.

“Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon who blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.  

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