Words, Words, Words

July 28, 2017

Mastering words in radiology.

It’s been observed that I have a certain way with words. Even if I hadn’t shared the opinion after a few decades of Broca-area usage, I might have come to accept it when a publication like Diagnostic Imaging saw fit to weekly publish me, nigh unto 6.5 years.

Ability can, but doesn’t necessarily, pair with interest. For instance, prior to college, I was quite capable with math. It came naturally to me, and I probably could have gone on to advanced degrees in the subject without much effort. As it stood, it bored me to tears, and the moment I was no longer required to take math courses, I stopped.

Choosing words, turning phrases, and crafting sentences, by contrast, tickles my brain in just the right way. I’ve imagined that this might be how a creative musician feels, in putting together notes or lyrics. I derive enough satisfaction from the process that it’s generally been a pleasure, rather than a hassle, when I’ve been approached by friends, family, and colleagues to assist them with memoranda, letters, and other such projects over the years.

Part of the appeal is that it’s rarely just about conveying simple factual information. One can convey nuance, tone, and subtle implication. Even if unintentionally. A posted announcement to a radiology office, for instance, can convey the same basic meaning but have overtones of “Trusted and appreciated teammates, here’s something we’d like to share with you,” or “Now hear this, you wage-sucking parasites.”

Most folks in our line of work are more attuned than the average bear to the power and precision of wording. Our main product, after all, is a written report of what we have seen in an imaging study. We are keenly aware of what can happen if we fail to communicate something effectively (or don’t communicate it at all). Also of how certain words and phrases carry particular meaning for referring clinicians, or, indeed patients, should they happen to see their medical record.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"62060","attributes":{"alt":"Radiology writer","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_7929996629397","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"7867","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 170px; width: 170px; border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: right;","title":"©studiostoks/Shutterstock.com","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

It is why some of us, at least, react a wee bit more strongly than others might expect, if/when an outside influence comes along to mess around with the words we would like to use. Voice recognition software, for instance, with quirks making dictation an uphill battle (see my blog from June 9). Higher ups in our department or facility pressuring us to report in a way other than we’d prefer…or referring clinicians, even governmental regulators pressuring us in similar fashion (see blog from June 23).

As with other talents, not everyone is good at wordsmithing, nor interested in being so. That goes for folks in upper hierarchical positions, too. Perhaps a reason why high-powered business types often have such well-compensated, super-competitive executive assistants. No mere administrative assistants (and don’t even use the word secretary!), these right-hand (wo)men can be tasked, and trusted with, the job of transmogrifying the ideas and blunt words of their bosses into verbal or printed instruments with fine, diplomatic edges.

For those in our field, who don’t happen to have the means or desire to throw six figures to such an assistant worthy of a Wall Street CEO, there are some other options: 1) Develop your own wordiness, 2) Take on a lower-cost assistant and hope s/he will develop the skills you seek, or 3) Find someone else on your team who can fill the role.

Options 1 & 2, at least, won’t be paying off in the near term, and might never reach the level you’d like. Number 3, on the other hand, has a halfway decent chance of doing better for you: There’s already a known cast of characters for you to choose from, and, at least in our field, plenty of highly-educated people. Surely, someone in the mix took some English courses, maybe even majored in the subject.

If you are going to try #3, avoid making it a matter of a favor the wordsmith will intermittently be doing for you. Telling them it’s their part of the “team effort” is all well and good…but if their other workload remains the same and they see no benefit from it (not necessarily hiked compensation, but maybe a realistic step up the chain of command now or in the visible future), no amount of “love of the game” will maintain their enthusiasm for the new role for long. You might just wind up reminding them of classmates who used to beg them to proofread their term papers.