Should I Waste Time Looking For Tiny Lung Nodules At Nighttime?
One of my former residency mentors said the following as he proudly scrolled through the electric film panel reader without stopping as he dictated, “You can miss em’ fast, or you can miss em’ slow!”
And, the life of a resident works non-stop, just like this former radiologist, especially on a busy night of call during residency. At least at our institution, we can easily have a night of 40-50 CT scans, 10 MRIs, 20 ultrasounds, multiple plain films, and fluoroscopy consults. Even though it’s tough, we expect our residents to churn through all these images and more! Then finally, in addition to all of this, we require them to dictate the cases that they’ve previewed.
So, with all this work that the typical resident needs to complete on an average night, does it make sense to worry about every little detail? I mean, how bad can it be to miss a 2 mm lung nodule or a 3 mm hepatic cyst or hemangioma? Well, I don’t like to be dogmatic about what’s right before I review the evidence. So, let’s consider the pros and cons of what it means to skip the imaging details.
Pros Of Missing The Tiny Lung Nodules
So, let’s start with talking about why we can forgive our residents for missing a few lung nodules here and there. Well, who cares if the resident flies past a few nodules at nighttime, as long as she has picked up the big stuff, yes? If you pick up a pseudoaneurysm of the common femoral artery and you miss a renal cyst, you’ve done your job. You’ve prevented severe harm and injury to the patient. What more could a residency director ask?
Moreover, the attending usually picks up the other findings in the morning that the resident misses. Regardless of whatever the covering radiologist does, she can always count on the backup of another set of eyes.
Also, if you are so busy at nighttime searching for nodules and cysts, how will you have time to look through all the other cases as well. Indeed, it is not critical to find that next nodule, when you need to get to that next case that can potentially have free air and pneumatosis.
And lastly, what is the harm to the patient of missing the incidental small lung nodule? Well, that is also close to zero, right?
Cons About Skipping The Small Stuff
But wait, is that all? Can we miss these nodules with impunity? Stop there.
Do you want to become a fully-trained radiologist? A well-heeled radiologist will never skip looking for any of the potentially relevant findings. They will always look for all the nodules and cysts on a CT scan. By practicing forgetting to search for these nodules, you are encouraging yourself to miss the same findings when you complete your residency. If you want to become a great radiologist, you need to act one early on.
Additionally, not all small stuff is harmless. Occasionally, those 3 mm nodules turn into that 4 cm mass which happens to be lung cancer. I’ve seen that happen with my own two eyes frequently, having interpreted multiple rare cases for a contract research organization that had us read cases for numerous drug trials. The risks are real, albeit small.
And, finally, not all the nodules and cysts are picked up by the morning radiologist. Just like anyone else in any profession, we cannot be perfect. If you did not make these findings at nighttime, how do you know that the morning radiologist has also picked it up as well?
For And Against- Where Should You Lie?
Both camps have some excellent points to make. And, stepping back from the fray, they can both make some sense. However, I would argue that you need to make your judgments about what to do.
Of course, if you are having an insane night with busloads of patients getting scanned, you need to triage your reads. Getting through all the cases trumps the potential for missing a lung nodule.
On the other hand, on a reasonable night, why not look for all the findings? You are doing an extra service to the patient and the morning’s radiologist. And, just as critically, you are augmenting your radiological skills.
Nodules or no nodules, one of the essential skills a resident should pick up from their residency is learning the art of sound judgment. We should leave this task to you to help you grow as a radiologist. Every time we allow, you, the resident, to make up your mind, and see the consequences, you learn a bit more. And, that’s the point of nighttime call for a radiology resident, to decide to look for tiny nodules or not. Let’s not forget that!