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Why Can’t Patients Understand Radiology Articles?

The internet has made medical literature more accessible to patients; however, do people understand what they're reading? A new study published in Diagnostic Radiology says that most radiology-related articles are written far above the average adult’s literacy level.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center assessed 375 radiology-focused articles published by 20 different university hospital systems, including Massachusetts General, Mayo Clinic, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals. Overall, most articles were written at an 11th-grade reading level and 36.6 percent were written above a 12th grade level. These standards are significantly higher than what the American Medical Association (AMA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend. According to the researchers, the average American adult reads at an eighth-grade level and the average Medicaid patient reads at a fifth-grade level.

Understanding radiology articles is challenging for most patients and, as a result, online patient education platforms are underused. Patients are also losing out on the resources that can better inform them of their conditions and help them ask questions about their health.

The AMA and NIH recommend that patient-directed literature be written around the third to seventh grade reading levels. Both organizations encourage writers to use language that can be widely understood by any patient, stick to short sentences, and avoid complex medical terminology.

“The internet creates opportunities for Americans to access medical information about imaging tests and modalities to guide them in their medical decision-making,” write the researchers. “By ensuring that health information can be read and understood by the average American citizen, even those with low health literacy skills, greater effect can be made to improving overall health and wellness.”

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