With each new class of medical students, the gender gap gets smaller – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Roopa Ram, M.D., has seen that change translate to radiology as a specialty.
A historically male-dominated specialty, radiology nationwide has been slow to change. While medical student classes in general are closer to an even split, women represented only 25 percent of the diagnostic radiology field in 2015, according to the Association of American Medical College’s 2016 Physician Specialty Data Report.
It was enough to make Ram and her UAMS colleagues ask “why” – and the results of that inquiry were published recently in Academic Radiology.
“One of the biggest takeaways was that mentorship is important for women when they are considering specialties, and more than the gender of the mentor, it was the interaction that was important,” said Ram, who advises the Diagnostic Radiology Interest Group and is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions among female medical students about radiology as a specialty, there is a lack of information, and medical students in general are not exposed to radiology early enough in their training. Our study indicates that we could harness the power of mentorship to overcome some of those obstacles.”
Ram and her co-authors – all from UAMS – used de-identified data from the AAMC’s 2011-2016 Graduation Questionnaires, which asked 71,941 fourth-year medical students about the factors that led to their chosen specialty. Options included career objections, mentorship, salaries, debt, family considerations and interest in the subject.
They compared the top-10 specialty lists for men and women. Women ranked pediatrics the highest and radiology 11th. Internal medicine, family practice, general surgery, emergency medicine, psychiatry and neurology also made the list. Only 3 percent of women included radiology in their top-10 list. For comparison, men ranked internal medicine, emergency medicine, anesthesiology and orthopedic surgery higher than radiology, which came in fifth.
Among the women who chose radiology, a higher proportion reported that mentorship was a strong factor (47 percent, compared to 37 percent of the males). They also prioritized work/life balance, future family plans, salary, family expectations, high debt and competitiveness of specialty. However, women selecting other specialties instead of radiology ranked length of residency as key to decision-making.
Ram said radiology mentors should take note and use their influence to highlight radiology as an intellectual specialty with great benefits like work/life balance and competitive salaries. While the study indicated that mentors of both genders have an impact, Ram said that hearing from a female radiologist’s personal experience is a powerful tool. Female mentors could help ease fears that female medical students may have about the length and/or difficulty of residency, work/life balance and having children because of concerns about radiation safety. They may also be concerned about the perception that patient contact is rare, which has also changed as radiology actually includes a wide range of patient-intensive subspecialties.
“We have a story to tell through the experiences we have lived,” Ram said. “I can tell medical students that I’ve done this residency, presented posters, attended meetings and accomplished things academically – at the same time balancing other parts of my life, including having kids, and it is doable. Personal stories do have a power. I can confidently say, ‘Hey, if I can do this, you can definitely do this also.’”
Ram’s co-authors were former Chief Resident Holly Jumper, M.D.; Shelly Y. Lensing, M.S.; Ji-Ling Tang; Linda A. Deloney, Ed.D.; and Philip J. Kenney, M.D., all of UAMS. It won’t be their last exploration of the topic. Ram said their next study will dive deeper into issues raised by this study.