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Radiologists, Beware; Apps May Take Your Job

February 15, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Practice Management
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Radiologists should worry about being replaced by automation, but their cleaning crews’ jobs are safe.

So says an article published online Monday by The Atlantic. The author, Martin Ford, a computer engineer and founder of a software development company, adapted it from his book, The Lights in the Tunnel. The book has its own Web page, on which it describes itself as showing “how accelerating technology is likely to have a highly disruptive influence on our economy in the near future—and may already be a significant factor in the current global crisis.”

Ford says that because the job of a radiologist is highly defined—interpreting visual images of the human body—it’s vulnerable to advancing technology. He writes:

Visual pattern recognition software is a rapidly developing field that has already produced significant results. The government currently has access to software that can help identify terrorists in airports based on visual analysis of security photographs. Real world tasks such as this are probably technically more difficult than analyzing a medical scan because the environment and objects in the image are far more varied.

Ford notes that a significant amount of radiology work is now offshored to India and other overseas locations where radiologists earn much less than they do in the United States. “Automation will often come rapidly on the heels of offshoring, especially if the job focuses purely on technical analysis with little need for human interaction,” he says.

In contrast, Ford says, the job of a housekeeper (or member of a cleaning crew), despite requiring no formal training, is much harder to automate. Cleaning involves not only vacuuming, dusting, and the like, but also distinguishing trash from valued but out-of-place objects that need to be tidied up and returned to their proper place. If a cleaning robot finds a piece of paper on the floor, can it tell at a glance what it is and where it belongs?

And then there’s the extra expense of creating special nonmagnetic robots to clean MRI rooms.

Even partial automation, Ford suggests, threatens radiologists. “If you can automate 20 percent of the radiologist’s more routine work,” he says, “then you can immediately eliminate one out of five radiology jobs.”

Maybe. Or maybe automating the reading of some routine scans will greatly increase the use of those scans because their cost will be lower. A general expansion in demand for imaging might actually create an even greater need for real, flesh-and-blood radiologists.

We’ll see. But I wouldn’t start looking into career opportunities in the janitorial field just yet.

Related seminar: The Business of Radiology

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One Response to “Radiologists, Beware; Apps May Take Your Job”

  1. Here's how likely it is that a robot will take your job on January 17th, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    […] One misperception about technological change is that the people who lose their jobs are all in low-paid professions. While manufacturing employment has fallen due to automation, there are very low-paid, menial tasks that are next to impossible to automate (such as janitorial work) and high-paid professional fields which could see automation reduce employment (such as radiology). […]