Most lumbar spine MRI reports are written at a level too high for the average patient to comprehend, according to new research appearing in the American Journal of Roentgenology and publicized by the American Roentgen Ray Society. Radiology reports have traditionally been written for referring clinical providers. However, as patients increasingly access their radiology reports through online medical records, concerns have been raised about their ability to comprehend these complex documents.

Researchers reviewed 110 lumbar spine MRI reports dictated by 11 fellowship-trained radiologists (eight musculoskeletal radiologists and three neuroradiologists) at a single academic medical center. These were evaluated for readability using five quantitative readability tests: the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Flesch Reading Ease, Gunning Fog Index, Coleman-Liau Index, and the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook.

The number of reports with readability at or below eighth-grade level (estimated as the average reading ability of U.S. adults) and at or below sixth-grade level (the level recommended by the National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association for patient education materials) were determined. The mean readability grade level of the lumbar spine MRI reports was determined to be greater than the 12th-grade reading level for all readability scales. Only one report was written at or below eighth-grade level; no reports were written at or below sixth-grade level.

As patients increasingly read their radiology reports through online portals, consideration should be made of patients’ ability to read and comprehend these complex medical documents, researchers say. A possible solution may be for patients to be granted access to their radiology reports only after discussion with their ordering physician or a radiologist, the study concludes.