May 26, 2023

Are You a Physician or a Radiologist?*

Kenneth J. Keller, MD, FACR

Kenneth J. Keller, MD, FACRWhen asked what we do for a living, why do we say, “I’m a radiologist.”? Perhaps a better answer would be, “I’m a physician,” allowing us to direct the conversation.

“What is a radiologist anyway?”

I've forgotten how many times I’ve been asked that question when introduced in a social group or gathering. That people still ask this question never ceases to amaze me, particularly considering the degree to which our specialty and related dialogue have penetrated social media (e.g., radiation, health screening, sophisticated scanning techniques and so on). They apparently don’t quite understand, or they wouldn’t ask the question.

In a recent conversation with a young clerk at our local grocery store, we had a couple of minutes to chat as she loaded a blank roll of receipt paper into her register. 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 asked, “Do you take care of patients?”

Since I did IR, I responded, “Lots of times I do.”

She concluded, “That’s pretty cool.” Her machine 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 answer to that icebreaking question 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?”

This minimal exchange creates 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 (such as their own physician). We can also explain how a radiologist usually has more specialty training than most practicing physicians (likely more than 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.

* Originally published online in Diagnostic Imaging, August 2012.