Radiologists, reading and the importance of being understood

According to research published this month in the American Journal of Roentgenology, the vast majority of patient education articles that make their way onto jointly sponsored website of the American College of Radiology and the Radiological Society of North America--are written at a 10th grade level.

That may not seem like too much of an intellectual burden to overcome for radiologists who are, by definition, highly educated. But, when one looks at the American population as a whole, it's a problem.

As described by, health literacy is "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services need to make appropriate health decisions."

The problem is that many Americans are only moderately literate. The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey found, for example, that between 21 percent and 23 percent of American adults had level 1 literacy skills--generally defined as having less than fifth-grade reading and comprehension skills. Another 25 percent to 28 percent had reading and comprehension skills comparable to an eighth grader.

As anyone who has attempted to gather medical information from the Internet and other medical sources can testify, it's not the easiest thing to do. Much of it is filled with medical jargon written at a level that is much higher than typical person can reasonably handle.

For the AJR study, the authors assessed the readability of articles on, finding that just seven of 138 articles assessed were written at a level below the 10th grade, and that the lowest level of any article written was above the eighth grade. That means that about half of American adults find it too difficult to read and comprehend the vast majority of articles on

The authors recommend that articles published on the site be revised so that they can comply with the grade level recommendations of the National Institutes of Health and American Medical Association. The ability of patients to comprehend health-related information is becoming more critical as they not only actively gather such information from the Internet and other sources, but also increasingly are expected to become more involved in making their own healthcare decisions.

The study's authors conclude that making the articles more accessible to the average patient will not only prove beneficial to patients, but also will help "lead to a broadened appreciation of the capabilities of radiology's role in general and enhanced understanding of imaging techniques and their application to clinical practice."

The study is also another sign that radiologists should be prepared to communicate with their patients more readily as we head into a more patient-centric future. And they should be willing to do so--both through verbal and written means--in ways that are comprehensible. After all, what's the good in increased communication if you're not understood? - Mike (@FierceHealthIT)

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