Assuaging Patient Fears about Medical Imaging

Assuaging Patient Fears about Medical Imaging

July 18, 2016

Not every patient is equally well-informed about the potential risks and relative benefits of medical imaging. This knowledge gap can create apprehension about the process. However, according to data compiled by the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health, physicians should take the opportunity to get better insight into patient fears, and allay them with accurate information whenever possible. As well, medical professionals can better communicate with the media, found the study’s authors, led by Dr. Jennifer Hay of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

In the paper, Hay’s team noted that there is a large degree of uncertainty regarding the actual hazards of medical imaging radiation (MIR). She pointed out that this gap has led to media depictions of it that focus too much on negative attributes, which could have a negative impact on the population at large.

“Patients’ concerns about the health risks of MIR could increase patient anxiety and impede quality of life, and could impede imaging adherence, given that high cancer worries are related to general distress and can lead to avoidance of imaging, such as cancer screening,” Hay and her colleagues wrote.

The design of the study
To analyze this issue, researchers drew information from the National Cancer Institute’s 2012-2013 Health Information National Trends Survey. Hay et al. looked at a population of 3,532 individuals, a broad enough sampling to be considered nationally representative. The study’s authors then observed how much people worried about radiation from medical imaging.

Researchers were careful to account for variables that might affect the results, such as age, health and medical history. They also looked at non-demographic data, such as cancer fatalism, the belief the cancer is a death sentence, which could also inform how afraid a patient would be of medical imaging.

The conclusions of the study
Hay and her team found that nearly two-thirds of the sample population felt at least some worry regarding medical imaging. These fears were most pronounced among women, racial and ethnic minorities, foreign-born Americans and those without advanced degrees.

Interestingly, the study also found a correlation between worrying about imaging, and self-reported poor health and a personal history of cancer.

Lower trust in doctors, and more attention to cancer information from popular media were also correlated with increased worry. Combined with the demographic data, these numbers tend to suggest two things – not only are people susceptible to potentially misleading information from popular media, these individuals also tend to be those in populations that are most at risk.

“Worry about MIR is relatively high in the U.S. population, and highest in the underserved, those with health challenges, those who are less trusting of cancer information from their physicians and those more attentive to cancer topics in the media,” Hay and colleagues wrote.

Physicians have a valuable role to play in helping their patients understand and deal with the fears that they might be feeling. When there is an information vacuum, the perspectives that fill it are not always completely accurate, and can lead to negative health outcomes. It is important that medical professionals engender trust in the people they treat, and leverage that trust to give those individuals the best possible standard of care.

Medical imaging can, in many cases, help save lives. However, it cannot perform its proper function if patients are too worried by the very notion of diagnostic radiography. Doctors should take a leading role in shaping the dialog around these tests, and ensuring that the population at large is aware of the benefits that they can provide.

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