Radiology is top choice for aspiring doctors

At his plush diagnostic centre in central Bangalore, Dr S Suresh and his staff of 10 conduct X-rays, CT scans, etc for eight to 10 hospitals across the city. After 5 pm, it's time for teleradiology services, where another team of 10, armed with radiology diplomas, interpret test results for hospitals across the US.

Six years earlier, Dr Suresh's parents had paid a capitation fee of Rs 1.5 crore to enable their only son to pursue his masters in radiology at a prominent college in Bangalore. They have no regrets - within three years, they got their money back, given that Dr Suresh's practice makes Rs 8 lakh per month.

A recent TOI report on a postgraduate seat in radiology commanding a staggering Rs 4-crore capitation fee in Chennai has surprised some, but medical professionals are quick to point out that radiology is one of the most sought after specialties across the country.

In Maharashtra, a radiology PG seat fetches a capitation fee of around Rs 1.45 crore; in Bangalore, colleges with just one or two seats charge up to Rs 3 crore. With only 268 medical colleges across India offering PG radiology, shortage of seats raises the price. "Out of 49,418 medical students across India, only 688 get to do radiology every year," said L P Thangavelu, president, Indian Medical Association (IMA)'s Tamil Nadu chapter, citing MCI figures.

But why are people willing to pay such stiff capitation fees? Senior radiologists emphasize that in a salaried position, radiologists would never be able to recover their investment. But the prospect of starting their own scanning centres is a big draw. Mumbai-based radiologist Dr Bhavin Jhankaria, for instance, is considered a poster boy of sorts in the field of radiology having sold two start-ups to corporates over the last seven years.

Often, those who pay crores for seats are those who come from a family of radiologists or are in the diagnostic business. "It does not make business sense to invest Rs 3 crore for a course when there are no returns. Parents do it only if they are assured of the payback," said Dr Sudarshan Ballal, medical director, Manipal Hospitals.

With the prevailing practice of evidence-based medicine, diagnostics have become very important. As Dr Sandeep Jaipurkar, consultant radiologist, Vijaya Hospitals, Chennai, puts it, "A radiologist is the consultant of consultants." Madras Medical College dean Dr V Kanagasabai explains that today, diagnosis of any disease requires at least one scan. "Whether it is pregnancy, cancer or a head injury, the expertise of a radiologist is needed to confirm diagnosis," he said. Given the number of tests patients today are subject to, radiologists with their own diagnostic centres can make a pretty packet. "An MRI doesn't cost less than Rs 10,000. Do even 10 MRIs a day, you can earn Rs 1 lakh," said the head of a Mumbai-based medical college.

Another draw is the absence of night calls and beepers going off at odd hours. Students who sign up for the course are said to be on the ROAD to happiness, an acronym highlighting radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and dermatology, all specialties assuring a balanced lifestyle, and offering good money for the least taxing work. "When I ask youngsters why they chose it, their answer is more money and no night shifts," said Dr Ballal.

The job is also stress-free and flexible when compared to other specialties, as radiologists are rarely involved in treatment, and their job ends with diagnosis. Except during ultrasounds, they are not required to be present at the time of scanning. "They can diagnose reports of patients from anywhere," said Dr Thangavelu.

Dr Harsh Mahajan, Delhi-based radiologist, adds that with innovations like teleradiology and interventional radiology, the performance of (usually minimally invasive) medical procedures guided by imaging technologies gaining popularity, the scope of the field has also widened. With interventional radiology a radiologist, with his hair-like probes and CT scanner guide, can reach a deep-seated tiny growth in the lungs or clot in a liver vein. In many cases, these super-specialized radiologists are the first choice for placing a stent in a blood vessel in a near-gangrenous leg or fixing an aneurysm (a blood vessel in danger of rupturing) in the brain or the heart's biggest artery.

Teleradiology, on the other hand, operates in a BPO-style environment. "If there is an accident in the US and they need immediate images of the injury, hospitals send it to Indian teleradiologists for quick diagnosis," said Dr Sharan Patil, chief orthopaedic surgeon and CEO of Sparsh Hospitals, Bangalore.

It's no wonder that in postgraduate medicine, radiology is a hot favourite, on par with orthopedics, with medicine at a close third. "At AIIMS, radiology has been the most sought after course for almost a decade now," said Dr Rakesh Yadav, sub-dean, academics at AIIMS. A master's degree in radiology is adequate unlike other specialties, and one does not have to spend another year or two unless you want to super-specialize in interventional neuro or onco radiology.

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