April 17, 2013 -- WASHINGTON, DC - Why don't more female medical students choose careers as radiologists? A Canadian survey has found a number of reasons for the reluctance of women to pick medical imaging as a specialty, according to a study presented Tuesday at the American Roentgen Ray Society (ARRS) meeting.
Researchers from Western University in London, Ontario, found women concerned about radiology's perceived lack of direct patient contact, required physics knowledge, and long hours spent working in dark rooms as deterrents. The researchers added that their findings highlight "important misperceptions" about radiology among medical students -- opinions that have implications for the future of the profession.
Lead study author Dr. Rebecca Zener, a first-year radiology resident at Western University, noted that women constitute 57% of Canadian medical students, but only 2% to 3% of them choose a career in radiology, compared with 8% to 9% of male medical students in Canada. That trend has remained "very consistent over the last decade," she added.
Overall, women only comprise about 25% of radiology trainees in Canada, which is a similar percentage to prospective radiologists in the U.S.
So, why are so few Canadian women pursuing careers in radiology and opting for other specialties? At least one factor can be excluded. Previous research has shown no gender discrimination by residency selection committees in Canada, Zener noted in her ARRS presentation.
Zener and colleagues developed a multiple-choice questionnaire for Canadian medical students across the country. The anonymous online survey was returned by 917 respondents, of whom 495 (54%) were women and 422 (46%) were men. The percentages also reflected the gender profile of Canadian medical schools. Approximately 60% of the replies came from preclerkship students, compared with 40% who were in their clerkships (known as internships in the U.S.).
Respondents who were potentially interested in or considering a radiology career were attracted to the profession for reasons of job flexibility, a broad knowledge base, salary, an interest in anatomy, and a task-based workday.
A further analysis of those preferences found that 69% of women were attracted by job flexibility, compared with 53% of men. In contrast, 63% of men were drawn to radiology for salary reasons, compared with 48% of women.
As for students not considering radiology as a career, deterrents included a lack of direct patient contact, their passion for another field of healthcare, working in a dark room, physics knowledge, lack of previous exposure to radiology, and the chances of obtaining a residency position.
Among the replies, 47% of women shied away from radiology because of the physics knowledge that's required, compared with 21% of men who stayed clear. This is despite the fact that approximately 8% to 10% of both male and female students have studied physics, math, or an applied science as an undergraduate or as part of a master's program prior to medical school, Zener said.
In addition, the researcher found that 45% of men declined a radiology career because they perceived it as a competitive specialty, compared with 34% of women who had the same response.
As for why female medical students, in general, chose a particular medical specialty (including radiology), the most cited reasons were intellectual stimulation, job satisfaction and flexibility, available employment opportunities, and direct patient contact.
"Interestingly, 93% of women who were considering radiology were attracted by a specialty that was intellectually stimulating, compared with 8% of women who were not interested in radiology," Zener said. "Of those women who were considering radiology, 82% of them were attracted to a specialty with available job opportunities, compared with 72% of women who were not considering radiology."
The questionnaire also asked Canadian medical students about their previous exposure to radiology and how that experience may have influenced their career decisions. Approximately 36% of men had performed preclerkship observation in radiology, compared with 23% of women. In addition, 14% of men had conducted research related to radiology, compared with only 5% of women.
"This tells us that men not considering radiology at least have more radiology exposure preclinically in their preclerkship years compared to their female counterparts, and perhaps [men] are making a more informed decision," Zener said.
She also noted that previous research, mostly from the U.S., has explored smaller study cohorts, which included first-year radiology students. Those studies found that direct patient contact and positive exposure to a specialty during medical school were among the key reasons students chose their particular career path.
Those findings were line with results from the study by Zener and colleagues.
"However," she added, the previous studies "were not gender-specific."