5 Questions: What’s It Like to Work in Radiology?

Col. Lattin reviewing a chest radiograph with a colleague. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Col. Grant Lattin)

By Vivian Mason

Physician: U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Grant Lattin, Jr.

Department: Radiology and the Radiological Sciences

Title: Chief, Department of Radiology, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC); Associate Professor, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University (USU) and Departments of Radiology and Pathology; and Program Director, National Capital Consortium (NCC) Body Imaging Fellowship, WRNMMC  

Years in Radiology: 17 

Radiological Imaging Interests: Abdominal, women’s, cancer, genitourinary, gastrointestinal, forensic, and tropical 

Qualities of a Radiologist: A good radiologist has affability, availability, and ability (in that order) and is able to interact with people in a very human way 

Two Influential Mentors: Dr. William (Bill) Craig, Radiology Chair/Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), and Dr. Ellen Chung, former Vice Chair, USU Department of Radiology 

Favorite Motivational Quote: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice” 

Sources of Inspiration: The people I work with and for every day; my faith inspires me to love and serve those around me 

Q. Why did you choose the field of radiology?

A. I started having an interest in radiology when I went through my clinical rotations. But, I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to do it. I narrowed my choices to radiology and ophthalmology. I decided that the breadth and depth of the radiology medical experience were what I wanted. Medical imaging touches every discipline in medicine. Radiologists are physician consultants for doctors, and we provide answers using imaging of their patients. So that was something that I didn’t want to miss out on. I also enjoyed the anatomy and pathophysiology of it, too. 

Q. What does your job entail and what do radiologists do? 
A. Well, it’s a balance of clinical and academic work. One day, I might see patients, perform biopsies, read mammograms, interact with patients and explain their imaging findings, handle administrative responsibilities, and then teach medical students and residents. The great thing is that we have different subspecialties within radiology. We are training generally in all of these subspecialties, but can then dive deeper and become experts within the areas of focus. 

Col. Grant Lattin (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
Col. Grant Lattin (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
The traditional subspecialties include musculoskeletal imaging (bone, joint, and muscle imaging), neuroradiology (brain and spinal cord imaging), abdominal imaging (abdomen and pelvis), women’s imaging (breast and reproductive health), pediatric radiology, interventional radiology, cardiothoracic imaging, and nuclear medicine and molecular imaging. 

However, newer niches are emerging with fellowships now being offered in such disciplines as medical informatics, with emphases on artificial intelligence and machine learning, forensic radiology, and cancer imaging. But really what radiologists do (and this is how I teach my students and residents) is use medical imaging to assist providers and patients in making informed decisions. We accept risk by doing that. 

For instance, a provider may say, “I’m not sure if this is an infection or cancer.” Then, after viewing the imaging that is optimized to answer the provider’s clinical question, I will offer my professional opinion. I try to be as accurate and specific as possible. 

It’s important to remember that a good radiologist will decrease uncertainty and not increase it by hedging in his or her report. 

My goal is for physicians and their patients to become more confident in their shared decision making after reading my report rather than less confident. That’s an important thing to remember. The radiologist lives in a world of risk and risk mitigation. Doctors need someone they can trust who is accurate. The radiologist has to be comfortable with his or her role in accepting risk, knowing that he or she is not going to have an answer all of the time. Generally speaking, a good radiologist helps people make better informed decisions with the interpretation that the radiologist provides.

Q. What aspects of your job do you find most fulfilling?  

A. I really enjoy the human connection of radiology. There are imaging-guided procedures and opportunities to interact with patients face-to-face in a very focused manner. I also love the anatomy and breadth of pathology that we experience via medical imaging. I may not see the patient in clinic, but I know that my role is an important one in helping real people with real problems. I’m always mindful of that. I feel so fortunate to be able to look into their bodies using imaging and help figure out what’s causing them pain. Performing a physical examination is one thing, but there are very few healthcare providers who actually get to look inside the human body. 

Another way to look at radiology/medical imaging is that radiologists are kind of like macroscopic pathologists. We look at the bigger patterns in the body and provide that important first step in helping people to navigate the algorithm of decision-making fairly early on. Often, when the risk is high and the patient’s in acute distress, we are able to help providers and patients make an informed decision as to how to best move forward. 

Col. Lattin performing a fluoroscopic exam. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Col. Grant Lattin)

Col. Lattin performing a fluoroscopic exam. (Photo credit: Col. Grant Lattin)

Q. Where did you attend medical school and why?

A. I went to medical school at the Uniformed Services University.  I came on Interview Day, toured the campus, and met everyone. I really enjoyed the military culture and discipline. But, I was most impressed by the quality and caliber of the people. Everyone was friendly and kind, and seemed to show a genuine interest in me. Even though I was just an applicant, I thought it was such a great environment. There was this whole sense of being a team that made it a place that I wanted to be a part of. 

Q. What advice can you offer medical students who are considering this specialty?  

A. Keep a very open mind. I think it’s important that medical students be mindful of what they are thinking and feeling through their clinical rotations. It’s also important for them to do an internal personality check. What I mean by that is if students find that as they rotate through the different disciplines that they are seeing the world in a very similar way as those specialists, then that’s very helpful information in determining what type of physician they would like to become. In the end, all physicians are just trying to help their patients navigate this human experience. 

Yet, we all view the patient and their experiences through a slightly different lens. Some of that is tied to our own experiences, and some of it is tied to our personalities. It’s important for students to recognize this. Be honest with yourself and learn to look introspectively as you go along. It’s not all about the grade. Be aware that satisfaction, both personally and professionally, is found by living a congruent life. 

What I mean by that is your personal and professional actions should coincide with your value system. If that’s not happening in your life, it will lead to dissatisfaction and burnout. I didn’t know this as a medical student. I’ve learned this over time. People who figure this out early can start to have a deeper sense of satisfaction and connection in their lives. Not everyone figures it out. Actually, I’ve learned more from my mistakes than from my wins. If you’re willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to failure, but commit to pick yourself up and continue on, then your journey will be tremendous. 

So, when considering any specialty, not just radiology, I’d say keep an open mind, do a personality check between yours and those of the clinicians around you, live a congruent life, don’t be afraid to fail, and learn from your mistakes.