Radiology’s work-life balance wins over many med students, but not all are impressed

At some point in medical school, most students will decide to change their area of practice. Understanding why they choose one specialty over another, however, remains a mystery. 

Doctors from the University of Arkansas recently set out to find answers. They analyzed what factors led students to choose radiology as a career and why others switched to imaging from another field or made the decision to abandon the specialty altogether.

Sumera Ali, MD, and colleagues at the Little Rock institution’s medical sciences school found “personal fit” and the “content of the specialty” were the top two reasons students pursued radiology. But that varied depending on who they asked, the authors explained Thursday in Academic Radiology.   

“We found that three factors influencing the decision to choose radiology as a specialty—work-life balance, salary, and length of residency—differed for the three decision groups,” Ali and colleagues wrote. “Understanding these dynamics can assist advisors and mentors to better guide medical students who are interested in a radiology career.”

Last year’s Association of American Medical Colleges report on residents found only 1 in 8 stuck with radiology from the beginning to the end of med school.

Using this as a launching point, Ali et al. analyzed national data from the AAMC, which included 1,965 students who pursued radiology. Individuals were divided into three groups: 281 students who chose radiology in the first and last years of school or the “committed” group; 625 who opted into imaging early, but later switched to another field (“switched-away”); and 1,059 who started in a specific specialty, but then moved over to radiology (“switched-to”).

Students cited work-life balance (64%) as one of the top three factors influencing their decision, only behind individual fit (87%) and content of the specialty (80%). Income expectations came in seventh, the authors noted, with 27% citing salary as a top consideration.

“Radiology is traditionally considered as a life-style specialty and continues to rank in the top five for work-life balance and thus it is no surprise that it continues to influence students,” the authors wrote.

They reiterated that the groups differed when it came to salary, length of residency, and work-life factors. For example, those who left imaging were more influenced by the length of residency compared to students who committed right off the bat (18% versus 5%, respectively). At the same time, respondents in this “switched-away” group were less concerned with salary (21% vs. 30%) and work-life balance (54% vs. 66%).

Those who opted into radiology later in school did not statistically differ from those who committed early. The findings can help radiology programs attract more students who may be on the fence about their career, the authors noted.

“Students who initially show interest in radiology can be targeted early during medical school and provided with meaningful exposure to the field of radiology so that they do not lose interest due to a lack of understanding or misconceptions about the specialty,” the group concluded. “Learning these factors can also help us recruit medical students who are more flexible with their specialty choice and are considering radiology among other options.”