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Female medical students, in their formative years, need to be exposed to women radiologists in strong leadership roles

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Radiology, as a post graduate branch, continues to be a top draw among medical graduates. Though there are just a handful of seats at the pan national level, radiology remains a highly coveted branch.
In the 1990s, there were few women medical graduates whose first choice was radiology.

Thankfully, that trend is changing now with more female doctors entering this field. Compared to traditional disciplines such as gynaecology and paediatrics, however, radiology still remains largely a male dominated field.

Why is this so? What are the barriers that prevent women from taking up radiology as a career and what can professionals in this field do to change that?

As a female radiologist myself, currently helming the division of ultrasound, X-ray and breast imaging at Wockhardt Hospital, South Mumbai, there a few actionable reasons for the above and also some myths which need to be urgently dispelled.

Drawing from my own personal experience, during our four years of medical school, our exposure to radiology as a potential future field was limited — a meagre 15 days. Instead, we were far more exposed to mainstream specialities such as internal medicine, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology and hence, most of us viewed these as potential careers vis- a- vis radiology. Radiology was generally thought of as a ‘background non-clinical stream’— also an investment — rich stream, if you were thinking of going into private practice straight after post-graduation.

The truth, however, could not be further from this — 20 years in this field and counting — I can say with confidence that radiology is an exciting medical branch at the forefront of technology and innovation. It remains a necessary part of the preliminary and advanced work up for each and every patient. There is much scope for work flexibility for women, especially during the challenging years of motherhood. For a female radiologist, this discipline offers a superb work- life balance.

Given these facts, it is surprising how few young women even now have their first choice as radiology. The key reason for this, according to me, is a lack of strong female role models. During our radiology post-graduation years, there were just a handful of women, we could look up to and approach regarding our own dreams and career path. While there were women who were a part of radiology faculty in hospitals and private practice, there were and still are, only a few women who could be potential mentors and are in strong leadership positions, compared to, say ,other branches such as obstetrics and gynaecology.

Currently in India, there are just a few women radiologists heading hospital departments, chairing conferences and running successful full time private practices. Even scientific publications have fewer women authors than men.

If we break down radiology sub-specialists, currently, there are more women working part time in ultrasound and breast imaging compared to either full time jobs or in cross-sectional imaging and interventional radiology.

Given the fears of radiation exposure, young female medicos are also hesitant to pursue this field as this may hinder or postpone their plans for motherhood. This acts as a barrier for women wanting to pursue radiology, more so for interventional radiology and nuclear medicine. This, according to me, is an erroneous view.

Radiation exposure is most during post-graduation years where adequate protection is provided with the use of PEE such as lead aprons; thyroid shields etc., and prudent radiation use is advised. Radiation levels were well within the permissible range in most of the departments, including the hospitals I worked with, were quite considerate about women radiologists desirous of starting families and rotating them in alternate areas such as ultrasound during these periods. To sum up, the radiation exposure versus motherhood conflict is easily manageable.

Though the best and brightest opt for radiology, it is true that if you want to strike out on your own, one needs to invest in radiology equipment which may run into crores of rupees and the early years to recover that investment and turn the venture profitable may be challenging. Hence for women eager to be their own bosses, this acts as a deterrent. Most successful radiology private set ups that I have come across are still family setup or partnerships where investment and responsibility of recovery is not managed solely by women.

Gender diversity in our radiology pool offers a better opportunity for our patients- richer and more diverse experiences, a competitive edge and encourages innovation. Also, in this century, radiology is at an exciting time where, with the use of AI and intelligent assistants, the process of reporting and diagnosis are being speeded up. Additionally, the use of non-invasive imaging guided procedures is fast replacing many of the traditional open surgeries.

Senior women and male radiologists need to be more encouraging and form willing mentors to enthusiastic youngsters. More women radiologists occupying roles of clinical directors and heads of departments will greatly help in inspiring the next generation of women to take up radiology.

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