A few days ago, I had an “aha!” moment that caused me to stay and listen to the radio in the car for an extra 10 minutes in the garage. In the “on-air” discussion, the presenter of the radio show claimed that in order to create real improvements in any skill, we need to learn from our mistakes and set smaller more reachable defined goals for ourselves. We can’t look at our most impressive role models and realistically say I will be just like them without a plan of action. Rather, we need to create a specific plan with small attainable goals to get there. And, I believe the same holds for improvement in the field of radiology. In fact, I would subscribe to a similar philosophy for all radiology trainees.
Just like we cannot expect to become like George Harrison at the guitar in just a few lessons, we also cannot assume that we will practice the highest-quality radiology after a few months of residency or even one year of practice. Improvement and learning occur at a snail’s pace. In radiology as most complex fields, it is a slow incremental process to become a consummate professional. And, we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves and our residents for not being perfect. Each and every one of us started without the full set of knowledge and skills that we have today.
Allow For Small Imperfections
All too often, residents beat themselves up for missing an individual finding or misinterpreting a case. And, as polished attendings, some of us lose sympathy for the trials and tribulations of the resident. We emphasize the occasional miss, not the learning experience. Attendings may harp on the small mistake and cajole the resident about the reading a film in the wrong way. But, are these the appropriate courses of action for residents and attendings? Probably not. Being hard on ourselves because of a miss helps no one. And instead of hounding the resident that missed a finding, radiologists should be helping him to realize he should be thankful to make the solitary error in a comfortable learning environment rather than as a final decision maker.
We all need to understand, residents and attendings alike, that in order to become a consummate professional we need to make a few mistakes along the way. Radiology trainees are no exception.
Remember, it is the sum total of the correction of small imperfections over the course of residency that allows the radiology trainee to become an incredible radiologist at the end. Radiology mentors should encourage their residents to take those leaps of faith rather than to hold back and merely rely on the Nighthawks or in-house attendings. In order to achieve that goal, attendings should not throttle the innate drive of radiology trainees to think and do more by making their daily existence uncomfortable and punishing rather than celebrating the small mistake as a tool for learning.
Setting Achievable Specific Goals
In addition to allowing for imperfection, residents need to create learning plans focused on learning “small” individual skills in order to improve, not generalized goals. What do I mean by that? Make an outline of the specific topic areas you want to learn and the resources that you will need to cover the material. Don’t just say I am going to learn all about nuclear medicine this month. Be specific about the how and what. If you don’t set a plan that emphasizes the small stuff, you will never reach the end goal. The ability to build upon small goals block by block eventually creates incredible professionals in any field.
It is not the overall completion of generalized tasks that make a radiologist great. Rather, it is the sum of learning from our individual mistakes and completing “small” goals over time. So, let us all celebrate the “small”. In the end, the sum of “the small”corrections of imperfection and the achievement of specific milestones builds great radiologists.