May 23, 2018 -- Traffic to online radiology forums that are popular with medical students has rebounded as diagnostic radiology becomes more attractive as a medical specialty. The improving job market seems to be driving the trend, according to an article published in the June edition of Academic Radiology.
Researchers analyzed traffic to two forums, AuntMinnie.com and Student Doctor Network (SDN), to see if trends at the sites were in line with overall interest in radiology as a career. They found that traffic to both forums bounced back during the 2016-2017 academic year after a dip over two academic years from 2013 to 2015, when interest in radiology waned.
The rebound parallels rising interest in radiology in the National Resident Matching Program, which pairs medical students with radiology residency programs throughout the U.S.
"There has been a recent uptick in competitiveness in the field ... possibly in part because of the improved job market as the economy improved from 2008 to 2009," wrote the group led by first author Dr. Paul Yi of Johns Hopkins University (Acad Radiol, Vol. 25:6, pp. 699-707).
Ebb And Flow
Medical students have flocked to Internet-based resources for information about radiology; a 2014 study found that third-party websites such as AuntMinnie.comand Student Doctor Network were popular sources of information for students trying to decide which radiology programs to apply to. Despite the popularity, no research study had evaluated the online forums regarding their roles in the decision to apply to radiology programs, according to the authors.
Therefore, Yi and colleagues analyzed the types of posts made by medical students to AuntMinnie.com and Student Doctor Network over five consecutive residency application cycles, with the goal of better understanding the perspective of medical students when it comes to applying to programs.
The researchers analyzed forum posts starting with the 2012-2013 application cycle and ending with the 2016-2017 cycle. They tallied the total volume of posts by both the number of discussion threads and by views, which the researchers felt were a good measure of the importance of different topics to medical students. Posts were also quantified by calendar month to find out which topics were most important at different stages of the application cycle.
Posts were categorized into six broad areas:
The number of threads and views in the forums of both sites bottomed out during the 2014-2015 application cycle, but traffic rebounded in the following two years, the group found.
The bottoming out of total views to both online forums corresponded with a lack of medical student interest in diagnostic radiology, as evidenced by the number of resident positions that went unfilled at U.S. diagnostic radiology (DR) programs. The 2014 Match was "one of the least competitive in recent history," with nearly 6% of PGY-2 DR positions going unfilled.
The number of unfilled positions grew to 13% in the 2015 DR Match, but forum traffic grew in the 2015-2016 application cycle. Yi and colleagues attributed the growth to interest in the addition of the interventional radiology residency to the Match as its own medical specialty.
What Do They Want To Know?
What, specifically, do medical students want to know about radiology residency? The researchers added up the total number of threads in each of the six main areas to find the ones that seemed to matter most.
With respect to particular subcategories of threads, Yi and colleagues found that certain topics in the "Miscellaneous" category were common, such as "Will I enjoy radiology as a career?" and questions about the job market and salaries. The most common topics related to the application and Match process included advice for ranking programs and interview dates. Also, some 7% of posting views were about final Match results.
With respect to chronological trends, the group found that two peaks for both new threads and views came in September and February-March: These coincided with the September application submission deadline, the deadline in February for Match rank list submissions, and the release of Match results in March.
What does it all mean? The researchers postulated that the results suggest medical students still aren't being adequately guided through the residency application process. The issues of applying for residency have been addressed "in multiple editorials and articles over the past two decades," yet medical students continue to "seek advice from anonymous strangers on these online forums."
Using online forums for information about residency programs can be fraught with peril. Information can be of dubious quality or accuracy, and because residency planning is such a highly personal task, the advice in such forums may not be the best fit for everyone, Yi wrote in an email to AuntMinnie.com. What's more, online forums remove the human element of the mentor-mentee relationship that can be so important to career planning.
"Online forums are often a place where people write in hyperbole and/or blatant and intentional dishonesty (i.e., 'trolling')," Yi said. "At the same time, we also know from experience that online forums can be a source of accurate, helpful information. It is probably a mixed bag, and so we recommend taking information from SDN and AuntMinnie.com forums with a grain of salt."