How I Spent My Spring Break – Why I’m Not Afraid Of AI


Who is afraid of the big, bad AI wolf? Not this radiologist.

As a practice leader I spend about as much time at meetings and involved in other administrative activities as I do in front of my monitors. Thankfully I have partners who are supportive of the work I do and often render phrases of ‘encouragement’ such as, “…I’m glad I’m not in your shoes.”  Gee, thanks!

A few weeks ago during our spring break many key members of our department were on vacation. Sadly, I was not one of them. It was busy to say the least but weeks like that are good for me to remember what a highly skilled and dedicated team I serve.  Needless to say, my reading volumes and ‘monitor time’ were way up that week.

Aside from the RVU-shock I experienced during that week I was inundated with phone calls from all kinds of referring clinicians. I have a core group of providers that I consult with regularly but it seemed that everyone was calling me that week. Many of the conversations started the same way, “…uh…hi…I was looking for Dr. Jones but they said he is on vacation and they put me through to you…”

Many of these calls led to frustration for both parties as I struggled to deal with issues that were generally outside of my area of specialty but we managed to fumble through.  Thankfully, no one was harmed by my lack of facility.

I ended the week physically and mentally exhausted yet emotionally energized by what I had discovered. Despite the notion that some physicians like to promote that marginalize the contributions that radiologists make to the healthcare team, it was clear to me that the opposite was true in my practice. With each phone call requesting a consult, my sense of value for the part our doctors play in caring for our patients was solidified. Yea…my ego took a little blow knowing that I was the ‘second string’ choice; however, that was easily replaced with the pride of realizing that the doctor who they really wanted to speak with had succeeded in developing an important and valuable relationship.

The concept of artificial intelligence and machine learning is getting quite a bit of attention in radiology circles these days. For every radiologist (like myself) who is enamored by this technology there are probably 5 who are afraid of it. Some see it as a death-blow to our specialty. Others see at as a means to create efficiency and cultivate value. Wherever you might fall in that spectrum is immaterial because this technology is here and it will be used to some extent in our lifetime.

I recently had the opportunity to demo such a system for our practice. I was amazed as how this computer took a set of CT images and through several iterations of analyzing clinical and image data, arrived to the correct diagnosis with all of the skill of a third year radiology resident.  This is truly amazing tech and will undoubtedly transform our practice over next two decades.

But I am not worried. I am not planning an early retirement or rushing to enter into an administrative job. I am not worried because of what I learned during spring break.  I am not worried because I know our practice has demonstrated value to our organization. Every time the phone rings (and it rings a lot) we are blessed with the opportunity to add value to our referring clinicians and ultimately our patients. Every phone call, every email, every page, every Epic message is a physical manifestation of the deep and valuable relationships that exist between our radiologists and our referring providers. These relationships were not built overnight and they will not be immediately torn asunder by a CPU.

So next time you find yourself irritated by the ‘non-RVU-generating’ activities you are tasked with just remember one thing. These are precisely the activities that secure your seat at the table. These activities help to build the relationships that demonstrate your value as a living, breathing, feeling radiologist. So answer that phone with enthusiasm!  Of course if the party on the other line asks for “Dr. Watson” you may be in trouble.