Radiology’s Enduring Popularity

Radiology is seeing a resurgence of interest from medical students picking the specialty in the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). While radiology’s popularity is at historically high levels, the new analysis shows how vulnerable the field is to macro-economic trends in healthcare. 

Radiology’s popularity has always ebbed and flowed. In general the field is seen as one of the more attractive medical specialties due to the perception that it combines high salaries with lifestyle advantages. But there have been times when medical students shunned radiology.

The new paper offers insights into these trends. Published in Radiology by Francis Deng, MD, and Linda Moy, MD, the paper fleshes out an earlier analysis that Deng posted as a Twitter thread after the 2023 Match, showing that diagnostic radiology saw the highest growth in applicants to medical specialties over a three-year period.

Deng and Moy analyze trends in the Match over almost 25 years in the new study, finding…

  • The 2023 Match in radiology was the most competitive since 2001 based on percentage of applicants matching (81.1% vs. 73.3%)
  • 5.9% of seniors in US MD training programs applied to diagnostic radiology in the 2023 Match, the highest level since 2010
  • Fewer radiology residency slots per applicant were available in 2023 compared to the historical average (0.67 vs. 0.81) 

Interest in radiology hit its lowest levels in 1996 and 2015, when the number of applicants fell short of available radiology residency positions in the Match. It’s perhaps no surprise that these lows followed two major seismic healthcare shifts that could have negatively affected job prospects for radiologists: the “Hillarycare” healthcare reform effort in the early 1990s and the emergence of AI for healthcare in the mid-2010s. 

Hillarycare never happened, and Deng and Moy noted that outreach efforts to medical students about AI helped reverse the perspective that the technology would be taking radiologists’ jobs. Another advantage for radiology is its early adoption of teleradiology, which enables remote work and more flexible work options – a major lifestyle perk. 

The Takeaway

The new paper provides fascinating insights that support why radiology remains one of medicine’s most attractive specialties. Radiology’s appeal could even grow, given recent studies showing that work-life balance is a major priority for today’s medical students.

Medical Students Return to Radiology

Medical students are flocking to apply to U.S. radiology residency programs, with diagnostic radiology seeing the most growth among nearly two-dozen medical specialties. The trend underscores the strong job market for radiologists.

The number of applications to diagnostic radiology residency programs has grown more than 10% a year over the past three years, according to an analysis by Dr. Francis Deng of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Deng has been tracking applicants for 23 medical specialties, and posted a now-viral table containing his analysis on March 13. 

The annual growth rates for diagnostic radiology and the related fields of radiation oncology and interventional radiology exceeded every other medical specialty for the past three years:

  • Diagnostic radiology: 10.5%
  • Radiation oncology: 8.9%
  • Interventional radiology: 6.8%

Diagnostic radiology’s growth is all the more intriguing given the decline it saw in residency applications from 2018 to 2020. Applications fell by 9.5% from 2,033 in 2018 to 1,839 in 2020, before rebounding to 2,409 applicants in 2023. 

What’s behind radiology’s rebound? RadTwitter offered multiple reasons:

  • Generational shifts in preference among medical students.
  • Medical students favoring “money or lifestyle over human interactions.”
  • Reduced worries about the impact of AI on radiologist jobs.
  • The trickle-down effect of a good job market.

RadTwitter pundit Dr. Saurabh Jha expanded on this latter point. A rising volume of imaging studies in the 2010s led to calls to expand the number of residency lots; these calls were ignored, leading to today’s scarcity of radiologists

Indeed, other data confirm his analysis. The ACR’s job board last year had the highest number of open radiologist positions ever, while recruiters have been flooding radiologists with job proposals for at least the last two years.

The Takeaway

The medical students entering radiology who celebrated Match Day on March 17 are likely to encounter a robust job market 5-6 years from now, as imaging volume grows while radiology residency slots remain static. Fear of AI’s impact on radiologist jobs appears to be receding, as evidenced by strong growth in radiology applications since 2020.  

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