RadXX Advocate: Create Opportunity to Create Inclusion in Medical Imaging Informatics

December 16, 2020
Whitney J. Palmer

Whenever possible, seize the chance to open more doors for women to contribute to the specialty, says Alexander Towbin, M.D., RadXX Advocate 2020 Awardee.

For the past roughly five years, the RadXX awards have recognized the contributions of women to the field of imaging informatics. But, advancement in the field does not come only from individual accomplishments, but also from the support of others.

That is where the RadXX Advocate award comes in, recognizing a woman or man who has been proactive in furthering the career of women in this specialty. This year, RadXX selected Alexander Towbin, M.D., Neil D. Johnson Chair of Radiology Informatics and associate chief of radiology, clinical operations and radiology informatics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, as the recipient.

Diagnostic Imaging spoke with Towbin, who also serves on the Board of Directors for the Society of Imaging Informatics in Medicine, about his efforts to increase the representation of women radiologists in medical imaging informatics and what he envision for the future of the specialty.

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Diagnostic Imaging: From your perspective, why is it so important to support and advocate for more women in medical imaging informatics?

Towbin: One thing I have found interesting over the past four or five months during COVID-19 as I’ve done media interviews is that, in many instances, existing or prior panels are all men. That’s been very eye-opening. And, in each of those instances, I’m often told that the those organizing the panel didn’t have contact information for women in the field or didn’t know of any women in the field. This goes beyond informatics to other areas of imaging, but it shocks me.

My goal is equal representation. When I’m asked to participate in groups, I look to see if I’m part of a “manel” or part of a group that’s all men. I’m embarrassed to be a part of it because when we close off to a subset of people, we’re limiting the quality of our ideas in our discussions. I just don’t want to be a part of it anymore. I’ve learned so much over the past three years from RadXX and from what I see on social media. I see what’s in our society and our community, and it’s not something I want to be a part of. So, I try to advocate for more inclusion because I do want to be a part of these groups otherwise.

Diagnostic Imaging: Focusing on medical imaging informatics, why is it so important to be sure to bring more women into the fold?

Towbin: I just don’t understand the counter argument of not doing it or not having women included. We have such a great specialty, and in all aspects, when you’re talking about informatics, when you’re talking about radiology, there’s so much opportunity. We need to have lots of great people in the field, and it shouldn’t be exclusive to one sex, to one ethnic group, to one anything. Having more and more people is better.

We’re providing care for women. Consequently, we need to understand the care that we deliver and how informatics plays a role in it. If we’re employing solutions for women on the clinical side – either on the end user or care provider side – and we’re not including women’s points-of-view, then we’re not designing solutions effectively.

Diagnostic Imaging: As this year’s RadXX Advocate, how did you find yourself in the position to start pushing for more inclusion?

Towbin: I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had a lot of doors open for me, some of it by virtue of, I think, who I am. My father is a pediatric radiologist, and I know he opened some doors for me. So, I’ve been given a lot of opportunity, and because of that, opportunity begets opportunity. I know my own privilege, so, being in the closed-door session – being in the room where it happens – I see other people don’t get that opportunity, and I am in a position to provide other people those opportunities.

When I sit in program committee meetings with 25-to-30 people, and there’s only one woman in the room, I know that needs to change. I can be the one to point that out and ask why there is only one woman here. I’m not denigrating that one woman, but we need more women. As a program chair of conferences, I see line-ups that have two female speakers out of 30. That’s not acceptable, and I can be in the position to change that, to make it where we have a more diverse lineup of speakers. It shouldn’t be the same person giving the same talk every year. We should be bringing new people in and giving lots of people the opportunity to let them shine. That part is so important.

In research, people need to see other people like them in the roles they want to help them envision their own success. That creates a pipeline of talent and gives people opportunities. I’m just fortunate enough to be in a position now where I can offer those opportunities.

Diagnostic Imaging: Are there specific instances where you have been able to leverage your position to make a significant impact?

Towbin: To use more generic examples, in one conference I chaired a few years ago – and I don’t remember the numbers exactly – but there was something like two speakers out of 30 who were women. This past year, there were more women speakers than men. It was probably 60-40.

I’ve also been asked to sit on panels, and when I’ve looked at the invite list for panelists, it turns out that it’s a “manel.” Specifically, this happened at RSNA a couple of years ago because RSNA oftentimes repeats a panel or a topic for a few years. I was asked to be on a panel, and I declined because there were no women sitting on it. I wanted my spot to be available for a woman. Again, I’ve had the opportunity in the past, and other people need to have the opportunity, as well.

There are a number of examples like that, but it takes all of us advocating for it. It shouldn’t be just one person doing it. One person can help to initiate change, but other people have to get involved, too.

Diagnostic Imaging: Based on what you have seen thus far, how have your contributions helped change the world of medical imaging informatics not only for women, but for the profession in general?

Towbin: From the start of me advocating this, specifically at SIIM to use that organization as an example, they have built a diversity and inclusion task force to discuss issues, specifically around women in imaging informatics. The society at-large still has work to do, but the first step is always recognizing the problem. They are taking that step to try to be a leader and get out in front.

It’s not purely about women. It’s about attracting people of all different identity groups. We all identify with different groups, so it is important to be a champion of diversity.

Diagnostic Imaging: Looking forward, what is your hope for imaging informatics as this cadre of female providers that are involved continues to grow?

Towbin: My hope is that the specialty societies can look like our society at-large and be a wealthy mix of all different groups. I want us to be able to attract people of any group in our society to be able to develop people and get people interested in informatics and imaging. There are a lot of cool things we can do by starting to track people to the profession at a young age in high school or earlier. We must show them all the different career opportunities that are available to them and highlight that imaging informatics is a great specialty to grow in.

It’s important to remember that we’ve all failed in the past in different ways. We all just have to try to keep growing and continuing to try to improve ourselves and to improve our society. That sense of striving for constant improvement for us all – personal, professional, and societal – is important. Even though we’ve all made our mistakes in the past, we must work to move on from them and grow, not be held down by them.