Teleradiology alone cannot plug imaging's leaky pipeline

August 18, 2008

When I was in my mid to late teens, I was the only female pupil in my year to study physics at senior school. Females were also the "lesser spotted sex" in the physics classes I attended at university. Judging from the presenters on the speakers' platforms at most imaging congresses, I would have been working in a similarly male-dominated environment had I chosen to pursue a career in radiology.

When I was in my mid to late teens, I was the only female pupil in my year to study physics at senior school. Females were also the "lesser spotted sex" in the physics classes I attended at university. Judging from the presenters onthe speakers' platforms at most imaging congresses, I would have been working in a similarly male-dominated environment had I chosen to pursue a career in radiology.

Radiology's days as a profession for men in gray suits may soon be over, however, based on the intake to medical school. The male-to-female ratio is shifting steadily toward the fairer sex at undergraduate level, and a 50-50 split is now commonplace. As these would-be doctors progress through the training pipeline, then every medical specialty-radiology included-should find its workforce taking on a very different look.

Many readers may now be banging their heads in frustration, crying, "But the number of female medical students has been rising for several years. Surely, we should have seen more change by now. Where have they all gone?" It appears that the pipeline has been leaking, and potential talent has been lost.

The Professional Challenges session at ECR 2008, "Women in radiology: How to maximize their input," focused on strategies that could prevent this unfortunate and highly costly leakiness (see lead news story in this issue and Dr. Clare Roche's Big Picture column in Diagnostic Imaging Europe, May). Many solutions have been suggested, including job-sharing, part-time working, and teleradiology.

It is the latter suggestion that I find particularly intriguing, having worked remotely myself for the past few years. Teleradiology can all too easily be seen as the quick fix that offers a way of allowing women radiologists to remain part of the departmental team when starting a family. The realities of working at home, however, can be very different from the theory. Work avoidance is easy when no one else is there to see you browsing the online TV schedules or to frown at your frequent coffee breaks. It requires a healthy dose of motivation to "go to work" on sunny days. The absence of onsite work colleagues can also lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Having the self-discipline to stay focused on a detailed or complicated task can require a major effort. Caring for a baby or toddler at the same time makes this even more difficult.

I am not saying remote working should be discounted out of hand. Teleradiology can undoubtedly add a certain degree of flexibility to fixed working schedules. When children are sick, family crises loom, or the washing machine has broken, then connectivity from home can certainly relieve the pressure of a fraught situation. But can smart technology alone plug the leaky skills pipeline? That I very much doubt.