A new survey indicates that radiologists need to open up to patients.

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By Marianne Matthews

January is the month of makeovers. From losing weight to quitting smoking, New Year’s resolutions are often about ditching bad habits, improving the self and changing the way one is perceived. Is it time for radiologists to reevaluate their current role and improve their image with patients? That’s precisely what one recent study indicates.

Conducted by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine, the findings show that even patients who have had imaging exams in the past know very little about the profession. For starters, of the 307 patients surveyed only 53 percent knew that radiologists were physicians. In fact, nearly 32 percent thought a radiologist was a technologist or a technician.

Led by Peter D. Miller, MD, radiology resident and Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD, professor and vice chair of radiology at Indiana University, the study focused on patients undergoing outpatient CT at the university hospital. During a four-month period, adult patients—almost half of who were college educated—completed two brief surveys. Approximately 64 percent said they had little or no idea what radiologists do and only 35 percent reported having much understanding.

Clearly, health care consumers have a distorted picture of radiologists. My hunch is that most patients know more about what a chiropractor does—even if they’ve never been to one. (And, I bet chiropractors benefit from a reverse image problem because many patients think they are indeed physicians.) But, let’s get back to radiologists. Remember, perception is reality. It’s up to you to set the record straight.

In a press conference, Gunderman said the study findings present an opportunity for radiologists to explore barriers as to why they’re not visible with patients; to gain the trust and loyalty of patients; and to educate patients about their role in health care.  According to Gunderman, because radiologists have embraced the scientific frontiers of medical imaging, “we’ve neglected the human dimension.” Now is the time to redefine the profession. “What do we want the image of radiologists to be?” Gunderman asked. “Are they humanly-attuned, compassionate, wise physicians that you’d want holding your mother’s hand?”

If that’s the image you want to portray, it’s time to step away from that PACS and sit down with your patients. Indeed, the survey indicates that your patients want to get to know you. In fact, 8 in 10 respondents said it is important to know who is reading their study. Moreover, overall experience was reported as very positive by 70 percent of those surveyed that met with a radiologist versus 53 percent of those who did not meet with a radiologist.

So if you’re living the old image of the radiologist hiding in the reading room maybe it’s time to rethink your role. Interaction and empathy are as important as technological innovation.  As Gunderman put it, radiologists love what’s new in science and technology, but are faced with a human challenge. Make this the year you get a little bit closer to your patients.