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Technology may bring radiologists closer to patients

Dr. Christoph Lee views mammograms at UW Medicine radiology unit.
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Technology may bring radiologists closer to patients

Web access to radiology test results predicted to lead to more consultations between radiologists and patients

As more patients gain access to the results of their X-rays and other radiology studies through hospital web portals, radiologists are likely to have more direct patient contact. This is the forecast of three physicians writing in the current issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

An increasing number of health systems are responding to patients’ demand to have rapid and convenient access to their health information. They have adopted patient web portals that allow patients to schedule appointments, refill prescriptions, email their health providers, and review their doctors’ notes, lab results, and radiology reports, write UW Medicine physicians Christoph I. Lee, a radiologist with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Joann G. Elmore, a UW professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, and Curtis P. Langlotz, professor of radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California.

Web access to medical notes and test results has been shown to be extremely popular with patients. They are particularly interested in their radiology reports. About half of patients click on and read the results of their imaging studies compared to just one-third clicking on their doctors’ notes, said Lee, the article’s lead author.

This is a good trend, Lee added, because patients can learn a lot from these reports. The information in them can have a big impact on how patients understand their medical condition. In addition, access to the reports gives patients the opportunity to provide additional symptom information that can help radiologists improve their interpretation of study results.

“Sometimes, the referring doctor may only give a two-word history with their request, say, ‘Abdominal pain,’” Lee explained. “Patients often offer more detail: for example, noting that they also have a recurring fever and unexplained weight loss. That’s invaluable information that helps us interpret the image.”

But patient access also poses new challenges for radiologists, Lee pointed out,. For example, as more patients look at their radiology reports, it is likely more of them will want to contact radiologists with questions. That may prove difficult, as general radiologists often have to view, interpret and issue reports on 100 to 150 imaging studies a day. They are left with little time to meet with patients to review study results.

One solution is to provide plain language summaries of radiology reports that patients can more easily understand.

“Traditionally, radiology reports have been written for the doctor who referred the patient, who typically has a specific question he or she wants answered. As a result, the vocabulary we used in reports can be exoteric and can be difficult for patients to decipher,” Lee observed..

But lay language summaries are likely to be only a first step, Lee went on to say.. “Eventually, we are going to evolve to have a system in which there are more direct radiologist-patient consultations in which patients, especially those with complex problems, come into the clinic, sit down with the radiologist, and review their imaging studies.”

For some patients, such consultations will prove to be very helpful, Lee predicted. “When patients see their medical images, their clinical condition often becomes very real. It can be pretty powerful and affect their decision making. The saying ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is true.”

Lee thinks most radiologists want to have more interaction with patients:. “Due to a fee-for-service payment system, we’ve been relegated to the backrooms because we have so many images to get through each day. But we are realizing that value is lost when we’re not more closely involved in the patient’s care. Currently, there is valuable information that is not being relayed or communicated directly to patients that should be, This information will help patients better understand their health and be more closely involved in their own care.”

source: University of Washington – Seattle, Washington

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