Should I go into radiology? A radiologist gives honest answers.

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I used to be a surgical resident in the U.K. One day, I was a little dispirited during a brutal call, and my senior resident asked, “Do you love surgery?”

“I like surgery,” I replied.

“If you don’t love surgery, love it unconditionally I mean — like loving your child — you will be unhappy.” He warned.

I really liked surgery. I like radiology. I’m happy as a radiologist. Radiology fits my temperament. You don’t have to love radiology like one has to love surgery, but you have to like it. It helps if you like it a lot.

The worst reasons to go into radiology are to make lots of money and to avoid patients. The days of radiologists making $500,000 + 12 weeks of vacation after reading 20,000 studies a year are over. Radiologists doing interventional, ultrasound, mammography and fluoroscopy (such as barium enemas) must speak to patients, and speak well.

Radiology is a tech-heavy field. If you’re excited by technology, you will like it. Radiologists are leading health care in IT. If you have an interest in health IT, then some programs will integrate informatics with your training.

Residency involves substantial reading. You have to master anatomy, radiological pathology, and physics, as well as have a decent knowledge of clinical medicine. Prepare for 20 to 30 hours of reading a week. Radiology is now 24/7. Calls are intense: 12 hour shifts are non-stop. But when you are off, you are off.

Believe it or not, international health — if you are into that — increasingly asks for radiologists. Although you won’t be parachuting into Sierra Leone or quarantined in Fort Hood.

Will there be jobs when I graduate?

Like Yogi Berra, I am reluctant to make predictions, particularly about the future. But radiologists have a poor record in making predictions about jobs. During Hillarycare, we thought there would be a surplus of radiologists. We were wrong. During the Bush era we thought there would be a shortage of radiologists. We were wrong.

That’s 0/2. That’s worse than a coin toss.

Here is what I can say. American medicine will not do with fewer imaging tests. American population is not getting younger. Health care coverage is not shrinking. There are more lawyers who need something to do. Bottom line: Demand for medical imaging will not fall suddenly.

There are emerging number of “empowered consumers” who want to pick up disease before symptoms. They will need radiologists, or someone who understands false positives, to keep their normal kidneys from the surgical pathologist’s slides.

Will residency positions be reduced?

They should but won’t be. That means you have the upper hand — because supply of residency spots exceeds demand. Beware though. The demand for good residencies has increased. The current first and second-year residents at my institute are the brightest I’ve ever seen. They’re scary good.

Ask the program director how many of their residents had to do two fellowships before getting a job. Demand that information. You have a right to know how their residents fared in this competitive market.

What should I do to before residency to be a better radiologist?

Rule 1: Avoid radiologists and radiology rotations. You’ll have a lifetime of us. And there’s only so much you’ll learn watching us stare at the screen and bark at the mike.

Improve your knowledge of medicine. Spend time on the ICU, in the ED, at the trauma bay, with the surgeons in the OR. Understand clinical decision-making. Understand how doctors think. Understand the ill patient. Become a doctor. I don’t mean that in touchy-feely terms. I mean develop clinical acumen.

The radiologist with a sharp eye and no clinical acumen is a generator of differential diagnoses — though not as good as IBM’s Watson will be. The radiologist with common sense (read clinical acumen) and even a mediocre eye will prevail.

Any other advice?

Join radiology’s professional society: the American College of Radiology. It’s free and has a vibrant section for trainees. Get yourself employment-specific disability insurance, if possible.

Get into the habit of exercising or playing sports. You will not be walking as much as your clinical colleagues.

Saurabh Jha is a radiologist and can be reached on Twitter @RogueRad. This article originally appeared in Skeptical Scalpel.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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