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Are You a Physician or a Radiologist?


When asked what we do for a living, why do we say, “I’m a radiologist.”? A better reply would be, “I’m a physician,” allowing us to direct the conversation.

“What is a radiologist anyway?”

I can’t remember how many times I’ve been asked that question over the years when I’ve been introduced by a friend into a social group or gathering, usually lay folks. That people still ask this question never ceases to amaze me, particularly when we consider the degree to which our specialty of radiology and related dialogue regarding radiation, health screening, sophisticated scanning techniques, so on, has penetrated the social media. They apparently don’t quite understand or they wouldn’t ask the question.

Recently I had a conversation with a young clerk in a store at our local shopping mall. We were waiting for her manager to help her load a new blank roll of receipt paper into her register so we had a couple of minutes to visit. She asked me what I did. Without giving it a second thought, I said, “I’m a physician.”

She replied, “Wow! What kind of doctor are you?”

I replied in the standard manner, “I’m a radiologist.”

She then said, “Do you take care of patients?”

Since I do interventional, I responded, “Lots of times I do.”

She concluded by saying, “That’s pretty cool.” Her machine was working by now, she handed me the receipt and I left the store musing about our interchange.

For years organized radiology and we as individuals have attempted to educate the general public about our specialty - who we are, what we do and why we think they should have us perform or interpret their studies. We promote our many years of training, knowledge of pathophysiology, technical skills, and radiation exposure awareness. We champion phrases like value added or concepts such as having the best training for the job at hand.

So why is it that when a non-medical person asks us “What do you do for a living?” many, if not most of us will say, “I’m a radiologist.” Such a response may perpetuate the ignorance about our specialty and engender additional ambiguity when they reply, “Oh yeah. Isn’t that someone who takes X-rays?”

Perhaps a better reply to that icebreaker would be, “I’m a physician.” Although not open-ended, this response inevitably invites the requisite reply -“What kind of doctor?” or “What’s your specialty?”

Now our minimal exchange will have created an opening for us to direct the conversation however we like.  We can talk about how we’ve gone to medical school just like any other doctor, even their own physician. We can also explain how a radiologist usually has more specialty training that most practicing physicians, likely even their own physician. If we really want to, we can explain how radiologists know all about every kind of disease from cradle to grave, from head to toe, in both men and women and so on. It’s the perfect opportunity to tout our field and educate those around us.

I prefer the word “physician” rather than “doctor.” I’ll never forget the television commercial where the actor claims that although he is not a doctor, he plays one on TV. We should all know that the American public holds physicians in higher regard than any other career field. There are a number of fabulous career choices that allow one to rightfully be addressed as “Doctor.”

However, I don’t want any ambiguity about what I do. I want people to know that I help prevent, diagnose and care for diseases in human beings. I want them to know that I think radiology is the most intellectual and cerebral specialty in all of medicine. I want them to know that when their doctors have questions about how to figure out what is wrong with them, they come to me for answers. I want them to know, that as far as I am concerned, professionally at least, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Ken Keller, MD, FACR, serves as medical director of the Department of Radiology at Trinity Health in Minot, ND, where has been since an attending radiologist since starting practice in 1983. He is particularly interested in interventional and breast imaging.

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