Are You Bored with Radiology?

April 16, 2019

Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you can’t be bored.

It was the end of one of my later undergrad semesters. One of the hardest-working guys in my house had just completed the last of his various academic responsibilities, and was free. This was a rather unusual state of affairs for him, and he was telling anyone who would listen how pleasant it was to experience boredom again.

Once upon a time, I would have thought it nigh-impossible for someone like a diagnostic radiologist to be bored with his work. To my way of thinking, boredom was what happened when you had nothing to do, or at least nothing that engaged your mind. So, barring circumstances such as a prolongedly-empty worklist, there should be no opportunity for boredom. Reading cases kind of requires the mind to be working, and the depth and breadth of knowledge involved surely can’t leave room for a rad to do it all on mental “autopilot.”

I still wouldn’t say that I’ve become bored with my career as a radiologist, or that I know a bunch of people who are. However, I’ve seen how boredom can creep into the picture.

The common denominator

If you think back to your elementary-school math lessons, you might remember the concept of a “common denominator.” Something common to all elements at hand. For instance, if you’re dealing with a bunch of even numbers, they can all be divided by 2.

The mind likes to organize things, and group them together for easy management and recollection. If it can assign a thematic “common denominator” to an otherwise-disparate bunch of concepts, such as oft-repeated activities in a workday, it will. Now cognitively bundled, anytime one of them comes up, the others are colored in the process.

So maybe tasks #1 through 10 each need to be done about 10 times per day. And any given task might be somewhat interesting, in and of itself. But the mind gradually lumps them together as “repetitive things I do at work,” and that becomes 10 tasks x 10 iterations = 100 progressively-boring tasks each day. Each newly-repeated task can drag at the novelty/interest that might otherwise have been held by the others.

Related article: 7 Reasons Rads Burn Out-And How to Cope

There are a lot of common denominators in a typical day’s radiological workload, no matter how varied the cases may be: clicking open a case, looking for and reading the clinical information, technical aspects such as contrast dosage, prior studies (whether or not one has to dictate such things, as opposed to having the software automatically populate those parts of the report), arranging images the way you personally like them, (if the “hanging protocol” doesn’t already do it).

Even looking at, adjusting, and annotating the images, one has a search-pattern-and the very definition of “pattern” reflects the repetitive nature of this exercise. Dictating one’s findings tends to be fairly repetitive, too, what with the preponderance of “pertinent negative” statements. Abnormalities, if at all common, are often described in similar verbiage by a given rad as the last few dozen times s/he’s seen them.

The finishing touches are also common denominators of behavior-summarizing findings in the report Impression, proofreading the thing, hitting the Sign button. Maybe there’s a “Sign/Next” button that handily executes the report and automatically opens the next case, so the rad can lather, rinse, and repeat that much faster.

There are some less-common denominators that might wake the rad up and get her more attentive-having to call a referring doc about a significant abnormality, or being asked to render an addendum on an old case for whatever reason. But even these events happen frequently enough that they are far from novelties.

The fix?

As uncomfortable as it can be to see an imaging abnormality that you truly don’t know what to do with, it at least can be a breath of fresh air-Time to go hit the references or get a colleague-consultation to figure the thing out. But these are rare birds, hardly seen on a frequent-enough basis to shake up the typical workday.

The in-between times are therefore fertile grounds for a rad to experience a certain type of boredom. One can regard the seemingly-endless worklist and think, gosh, isn’t there anything different I could be doing? And the brain, thirsty for any different sort of input, has all sorts of suggestions: Let’s check the news. Our stocks. Facebook. Let’s make a personal phone-call. Or go for a stroll to get a coffee and see what interesting stuff happens on the way.

Some rads can scratch these itches in more productive ways, and would eagerly do so, given half a chance. Indeed, not helping/allowing them is a lost opportunity to harness some potent energies.

Some sort of administrative role, like organizing the work-schedule or reviewing feedback from referrers. Taking part in periodic group-meetings with a sense of helping to steer the proverbial ship. Or more academic pursuits: Teaching students and housestaff. Giving lectures. Training/mentoring other rads who have recently joined the team.