What Patients Want to Know Before Having an Imaging Exam

Are patients most concerned about radiation? A study found the answer.

Peer Reviewed

If you’ve suffered a spine injury or have chronic pain, you most likely have had a spinal imaging exam. But between the time when your doctor orders the test and when you get the exam report, what information is shared between you and your health care team?

A study published in the journal Radiology in February 2018 sought to learn what information patients and caregivers valued about imaging tests before the procedure—and how they preferred to get that information.
Doctor and patient on a video call.A study sought to learn what information patients and caregivers valued about imaging tests before the procedure. Photo Source: 123RF.com.The study’s authors wrote that patient care in radiology typically focuses on communication of test results, which occurs after the imaging exam. But what about the patient experience before the imaging exam? The authors found that 22% of the study’s subjects reported receiving no information prior to their imaging exam.

First: A Quick Word About Common Spinal Imaging Exams

Several types of imaging tests exist, and many help diagnose and treat spinal conditions. One misconception about imaging exams is that they all emit radiation. While x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and nuclear medicine studies involve radiation, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and musculoskeletal sonography do not.

Take a closer look at these different types of spinal imaging exams:

Finding What Matters to Patients: The Study and Its Findings

The research team sent a 24-item survey to participating patients and caregivers at 3 pediatric hospitals and 3 adult hospitals between January and May 2015.

The survey contained questions on demographics (eg, age, sex, education) and how the respondents preferred to receive information about imaging tests. The survey also asked respondents to rank certain questions about imaging tests on a scale of “very important” to “not important” to help the researchers learn more about what patients wanted to learn before the test.

In total, 1,542 people participated in the survey. The average respondent age was 46 years, and 68% of respondents were female.

Key takeaways of the study included:

  • Most respondents (72%) said the doctor who ordered the exam was their preferred source of imaging exam-related information, with radiology staff the second preference (21%)
  • Most patients prefer information about their upcoming exam delivered by phone (52%), with in-person discussion as a second preference (37%)
  • Half of respondents (52%) sought information about their upcoming exam themselves (by contacting their ordering provider’s office or searching online)
  • Patients most value information about exam preparation
  • Patients least value radiation-related information

Preparation, Not Radiation: What Patients Want to Know

Respondents said questions that highlighted basic information about the upcoming imaging examination were most important to them, such as:

  • How do I prepare for my imaging test?
  • What will the imaging test be like?
  • Will I need an intravenous (IV) line or will I need to drink anything for my imaging test?

Fewer people valued questions that focused on radiation issues, such as:

  • Does the imaging test use radiation?
  • How much radiation will the imaging test use?
  • Is there an imaging test that I could have instead that doesn’t use radiation?

The study’s findings of lower importance on radiation-related information contrasts with media reports highlighting radiation in imaging exams. Jay K. Pahade, MD, the lead author of the study and a radiologist at Yale Diagnostic Radiology in New Haven, CT, says radiation shouldn’t discourage a patient from getting a potentially important imaging exam.

“Methods exists to track [radiation], but nobody knows if and at what level may impart harm from radiation exposure during a medical imaging test,” Pahade said. “Therefore, I personally am not an advocate for ‘radiation exposure tracking,’ as the information it provides is debatable and fear of radiation exposure can sometimes make patients not want to get a test that is actually needed and may have a big impact in their care.”

“What was most surprising in our study was that patients actually didn’t place much value on information related to radiation exposure before their test,” Pahade continued. “Most patients trust that the test is needed if it is ordered by their doctor, but they often have anxiety on what will occur during the test and how they need to prepare for it. I think the radiology community needs to do a better job of informing our patients of the resources already out there that provide this information, so they don’t have to waste time hunting on the internet.”

Pahade recommended www.radiologyinfo.org as a patient-friendly resource to learn more about imaging tests.

Updated on: 09/10/19
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Associate Professor Term
Director of Quality and Safety
Yale School of Medicine
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