Dr Benjamin Morrissey became interested in radiology as the field regularly offered opportunities to work hand-in-hand with other healthcare experts to diagnose complex medical cases and devise treatment plans.

“Hardly any patient comes into the hospital without getting some kind of imaging,” said Morrissey, who is now the chief resident in radiology at the University of Utah.

“You might not get to see every patient, but you do get to be involved in every interesting case.”

Radiologists: Not just tech geeks

Radiologists are medical doctors whose field of work largely depend on utilising a wide array of advanced imaging techniques, but their expertise is not confined solely in the use of sophisticated technology. Radiologists are skilled in analysing and correlating medical histories, physical exam findings as well as laboratory values with their interpretations of the medical imaging to arrive at an accurate diagnosis.

The field of radiology is especially suited and rewarding for those who thrive on intellectual stimulation, as it constantly challenges physicians to interpret complex studies and piece together medical clues to achieve a diagnosis, very much like solving a puzzle.

Radiologists are also among the first to pilot the use of new imaging technologies, and given the constant state of flux in medical technology, the field offers many new and exciting learning experiences.

Fewer doctors opt to specialise in radiology

Unlike the early days of medicine when doctors could only work with film radiography, modern technology has led to the development of other cutting-edge imaging techniques such as computer tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), fluoroscopy, nuclear imaging and ultrasound.

The emergence of sophisticated equipment allowed for more precise and timely imaging of the human body, and as demand for radiologists soared, the field quickly became a popular choice amongst physicians in the 1980s. Young doctors competed for coveted residencies in radiology for the promise of good income and stable employment.

For various reasons however, the field has seen a sharp decline in recent years.

An overview of the distribution of specialists in Malaysian hospitals revealed that there were only roughly 392 radiologists nationwide in 2010, compared to 1270 general medicine specialists at the same time. Meanwhile in the US, the number of medical graduates opting to match into radiology has reduced by over 10%, and residency slots within radiology have similarly decreased by 8% between 2013 and 2017.

The battle between man and technology

The worrisome trend comes as more experts discuss over the importance of the human touch in medicine and debate that the widespread reliance on technology is slowly draining talent in young doctors to accurately diagnose medical problems.

“This is not the time to back off in trying to get the diagnoses right,” said chief executive of the University of Utah Health Care and a former practicing radiologist, Vivian Lee.

“I’m worried that, with the decrease in the number of residencies, we’re getting into a vicious cycle where we have fewer people wanting to go into the field and fewer training programs.”

The decline is further compounded by the added worry that advances in machine-learning and disease-recognising technology will gradually diminish the need for radiologists – but such technology has yet to arrive, and even when it does, the interpretive skill of radiologists will still be required.

In fact, the demand for diagnostic radiology is still increasing.

“Patients want to get answers about their health care, whether it be procedures or examinations, from the experts that are providing the information,” said William Thorwarth, chief executive of the American College of Radiology.

In multi-disciplinary healthcare, “radiologists can be a coordinator of those various parts and bring to the patient an overview that they might not get from a clinical specialist,” he added. “We have the opportunity to interact with patients every day.” MIMS

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