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Radiologic Technology: Reducing the Most Common Misdiagnoses

Doctor analyzing x-ray.

Radiologic technology helps physicians reduce errors due to delayed medical findings in patients and misdiagnoses. [1] However, misdiagnoses pose ongoing, problematic issues for care providers.

The types of ailments that care providers miss or misdiagnoses have remained relatively constant over time. In part, they may include:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancers
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Infections
  • Pulmonary embolisms

In light of this, scientists from the nonprofit research institute, RTI International, founded the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM) in 2011. The group studies information from healthcare data sources such as autopsy reports to uncover when and why misdiagnoses occur.

Misdiagnoses Indicators

SIDM researchers found that misdiagnoses decreased by half over the course of each decade, but that the same conditions were primarily being misdiagnosed. These included cardiovascular conditions, cancer and infections. The most frequent misdiagnoses occurred for pulmonary embolisms, tuberculosis, coronary artery disease, ruptured aneurysms and neoplasms, respectively.

Another source of data about misdiagnoses includes physician-reported errors. These errors occur considerably less often when compared to autopsy reports. In 2009, nearly 600 physicians participated in a medical misdiagnosis study in Cook County, Chicago. They reported errors identifying acute coronary syndrome, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, overdoses and pulmonary embolism conditions at an average rate of 3.86 percent.

In addition to physicians, radiologic technologists can also produce misdiagnoses. This is largely due to perceptual and cognitive errors. Perceptual errors occur when technologists miss what appears on the diagnostic output. This might happen when the technologist identifies one condition and completes the procedure, thereby failing to identify a second existing condition. A cognitive error may occur when a radiologic technologist concurs with an initial opinion that is listed on a patient record even though it may be false or in error.

Saving Lives With Radiologic Imaging

Care providers use diagnostic images to identify internal organs that are afflicted by various ailments. [2] Some diagnostic evaluations can enable physicians to identify early stage cancers. Others allow doctors to establish the original physical condition of their patients (called a baseline) to better track patient progress over time.

While diagnostic evaluations can provide tremendous benefits, they are limited. For instance, diagnostic x-rays cannot identify cancerous cells until they demonstrate considerable presence in the body; an ultrasound cannot display a single remaining cell after treatment, which will divide and reproduce if it is not eradicated. Because of this, physicians must prescribe continuing treatments to cancer patients, even when a radiologic examination does not show remaining cancer cells.

Ultrasound technologists generate images of internal organs using ultrasound technology. They also compose written reports based on findings from diagnostic images. All of this information becomes part of patients’ electronic health record. These records provide important information for reference by other physicians who will make critical decisions about patient treatment plans. Radiologic technologists also answer patients’ questions about diagnostic procedures.

What Lies Ahead

Although researchers plan exciting innovations for the future of radiology, the core function of radiologic medical imaging is, and will remain, the use of energy to evaluate human tissue. [3] However, the way imaging professionals view the process will evolve continuously. For example, radiologic technologists for many years thought of radiology as using the principles of physics. Since then, words like “radiograph” and “image” have given way to other terms such as “attenuation map.” Additionally, technologists now have increased imaging functionality brought by relatively new magnetic, nuclear, optical, radiofrequency and ultrasound devices.

These new energy sources have allowed researchers to move beyond simply observing internal anatomical structures to evaluating physiology in motion, and diagnosing tissues on cellular and molecular levels. That means current technologists can now generate diagnostic images that depict internal organ movement and velocity. Where technologists were once restricted to viewing scales that measured in centimeters and millimeters, they can now view tissue at micrometer and nanometer magnifications. This makes radiologic technology one of the latest tools available for molecular and genomic research.

While radiologic advancements abound, it is crucial to remember that no technology can circumvent the human factor that is involved in misdiagnoses. [1] Lessening the frequency and impact of misdiagnoses begins with proficient radiologic technologists who help physicians make better decisions. To fulfill this goal, the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine Imaging is endeavoring to improve radiologic education. The objective is to realize a future where diagnostic errors occur less, and have less of an impact on patient care.

Learn More

The Adventist University of Health Sciences Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences online degree offers working imaging professionals an expanded opportunity to learn the technical, medical and people skills to help them continue their professional growth. Whether your goal is to provide a higher level of patient care or to advance your career by moving into management, education, consulting, or industry, the place to begin is with a Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences degree.

Recommended Readings:

5 Important Regulations in Radiology
Essential Skills for Radiologists and Radiologic Technologists
Innovations and Benefits of Mammography for Radiologists



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