Radiologists approaching retirement may have a sustainable role in a swiftly moving healthcare landscape.
When considering what the future of radiology will look like — maybe 10 years from now — you might have visions of AI commanding imaging practices. You may see women and minorities assuming top leadership positions. Perhaps you believe behemoth healthcare groups will continue swallowing up smaller practices. Your best guesses aside, one future change is certain — a significant, aging physician workforce
will give way to younger radiologists with different skill sets.
It behooves the radiology leaders of today to recognize the coming transition and prepare for fewer staff and changing roles. “There are radiologist shortages already, especially in rural areas,” says Catherine J. Everett, MD, MBA, FACR, chair of the ACR Senior and/or Retired Section and a diagnostic radiologist at Coastal Radiology in New Bern, N.C. “There are not enough people to do the work, practices don’t have enough resources, and healthcare is changing and increasingly dependent on imaging.”
A national shortage of specialty physicians — potentially upwards of 31,000 by 2030 — poses a real risk to patients. With the baby boomer sector of the workforce nearing retirement age, many radiology managers will be looking for emerging leaders to sustain their practices. Because
the time needed to bring a new physician up to speed is substantial — and with a third of practicing full-time radiologists now age 55 or older — the retirement wave matters for all members of a radiology group.1,2
“You can’t teach experience; it just comes with time,” notes Efrén J. Flores, MD, officer of radiology community health improvement and equity at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When I sit down with a more senior radiologist, it’s a fascinating learning experience,” he says. “Just listening to how they approach the cases and listening to stories about the department — how it once was and how it has evolved — is helpful.You can’t afford to disregard that kind of information.”
Keeping experienced radiologists can benefit everyone, Flores believes. According to Flores, phasing out of the everyday routine of full-time clinical work can be difficult for more senior radiologists who are accustomed to performing at a high level all the time. “But taking on new roles within the organization can lead to valuable mentoring opportunities to junior faculty, in addition to the education of students and other specialists, with whom they are a trusted voice,” he says.
A primary care doctor, for example, who is accustomed to listening to and learning from a particular radiologist about X-rays or CT scans will feel the effect of that specialist’s retirement, Flores says. “Senior radiologists also have a lot of leverage at radiological society events and state
chapter meetings,” he says. “Their words may carry more weight because they have experienced certain situations firsthand.”
A quarter of radiology practice leaders surveyed report at least one radiologist retiring from their practice in the past year. Those same leaders say they still employ a once-retired radiologist “in some capacity.”2 This is telling in two ways. One, high-functioning physicians may be reluctant to step away from lifelong service altogether. Two, there are challenging gaps to fill when they leave.
Giving senior radiologists as many options as possible when nearing retirement can alleviate transition anxiety. “We’ve had some success letting people phase out over a four-year period,” says John J. Cronan, MD, FACR, chair of diagnostic imaging at Rhode Island Hospital and professor at Brown University School of Medicine. “They start out working a four-day work week, then a three-day week, two days, and so on. They only take call for the first year or so and then there’s no call at all.”
Many senior radiologists want to remain an active part of a group if they feel their contributions are still valuable, Cronan says. That may mean consulting for hospitals or assuming an advisory committee position. But there is plenty of clinical work too if they want it, he notes. “I know a radiologist who came back to work just to read plain films,” Cronan says. “The younger doctors don’t want to do that. They’ll read an MRI over an abdominal X-ray.”