Interpreting trauma radiographs


Maryann Hardy, Division of Radiography, School of Health Studies, University of Bradford, Trinity Road, Bradford BD5 0BB, UK.


Background. Many accident and emergency clinicians regard the radiographic image as an extension of the clinical examination, as a provisional diagnosis, based on clinical signs and symptoms, can be confirmed or refuted by inspection of X-rays. However, the value of radiography in this context is not determined by the actual presence of trauma or pathology on the radiograph, but is dependent on the ability of a clinician to identify any trauma or pathology present. Traditionally, the responsibility for interpreting radiographic images within the accident and emergency environment in the United Kingdom (UK) has been with medical clinicians. However, expansion of the nursing role has begun to change the boundaries of professional practice and now many nurses are both requesting and interpreting trauma radiographs.

Aim. To ascertain the ability of accident and emergency doctors and nurses to interpret trauma radiographs, and identify whether there is a consistent standard of interpretive accuracy that could be used as a measure of competence.

Methods. A literature review was conducted using the Cochrane Library, Medline and CINAHL databases and the keywords radiographic interpretation, radiographic reporting, accident and emergency and emergency/nurse practitioner.

Findings. The ability of accident and nursing doctors and nurses to interpret trauma radiographs accurately varies markedly, and no identified published study has established an appropriate level of accuracy that should be achieved in order to demonstrate satisfactory competence in the interpretation of radiographic images.

Conclusions. Determining a measure of interpretive accuracy that can be used to assess ability to interpret radiographic trauma images is fraught with difficulties. Consequently, nurses may attempt to prove their skills by directly comparing their abilities to those of their medical colleagues. However, as a result of marked variation in the ability of senior house officers to interpret trauma radiographs, a similar ability does not automatically imply that a satisfactory level of ability has been achieved.