MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: What are the risks associated with being a radiologist?

Date: Thu Mar 15 10:41:13 2001
Posted By: Robert Schier, M.D., Radiology, Pacific Imaging Consultants
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 983413625.Me

You ask two related questions: 1)Are there health risks associated with being a Radiologist, and 2)Are there risks associated with being exposed to x-rays and radiation all the time? I will answer the second one first.

1.) Yes, there is a health hazard associated with exposure to large amounts of radiation. Sure, that's easy and we all know the answer. Exposure to VERY large amounts of radiation -- such as found close to a nuclear blast or reactor meltdown -- can cause death within days or weeks. Lower but still high levels of exposure cause increases in diseases such as cancer.

What happens with exposure to very low doses of radiation? No one knows for sure. One reason is that it is not clear just how to theoretically extrapolate back from the effects of high doses to very low doses. Is it linear extrapolation or some other type of curve? Another reason is that even if small doses really do produce a small effect, it may be statistically impossible to detect that effect. For example, suppose radiation or some other agent produces one case of cancer each year in 10,000,000 people. It would be impossible to detect that against the huge background of "naturally occuring" cancers.

Why am I going into all of this? I am doing it to set the stage for understanding the answer to the second question, Is there a health risk associated with being a Radiologist?

2.) As far as anyone can determine, the answer is NO! No reliable study has demonstrated increased risk of cancer or other health problems related to practicing diagnostic radiology. This was true even fifty years ago, when radiologists received much more incidental radiation exposure than they do today. So, maybe the radiation does in fact produce some health problems. But if it does, it is such a rare occurence that no one has been able to detect it. (Being a surgeon, pediatrician, computer engineer or grocery clerk carry their own, different risks.)

This brings up an important point: Radiologists actually receive very little radiation in the course of their jobs. Some, such as specialists in MRI or Ultrasound, receive none at all. Most general radiologists receive a little. Interventional radiologists -- who spend more time doing procedures with fluoroscopy -- receive more. But the x-ray machines are shielded, the x-ray beam is tightly "focused" and there is little scatter radiation to the sides, and any radiologist or technologist who has a change of exposure wears lead aprons. And there have been no health problems demonstrated even in "high-exposure" interventionalists.

Besides, being a radiologist is fun and most radiologists love their jobs. It's worth putting up with whatever minute risk might exist. I suspect that more radiologists break their legs surfing on Maui than get injured in any way because of radiation exposure.

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