How good (and bad) habits can affect radiologists

Many radiologists are creatures of habit, according to a new analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. What does this mean for their overall performance on a day-to-day basis?  

“Some of these behaviors can optimize efficiency, personal wellness, and patient safety,” wrote Jacob C. Mandell, MD, department of radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Others may have overt or subtle negative effects on the individual radiologist or work environment. It is important for radiologists to be aware of the neurobiology of habits and their power to impact our daily work and goals.”

Some habits, Mandell noted, develop over time as a specialist follows certain safety procedures again and again. And while this can be good for patients, ensuring that radiologists never miss an important step, it can also cause issues if the individual leans so much on those habits that they stop paying attention.

“For instance, if a procedure tray is set up in a different manner than normal, the interventionalist may reach for the wrong device, expecting it to be in its typical location,” Mandell wrote. “Errors occurring due to this phenomenon are known as a ‘slip of habit,’ which is a conflict between goal-directed and habit-controlled actions. Safety pauses and checklists can mitigate these errors by forcing the cerebral cortex to confirm that the habitual action sequence is appropriate for the current circumstance.”

Another way habits can have a negative impact on radiologists is that they can cause disruption in the reading room. An individual who has grown accustomed to checking their phone every 30 seconds, for instance, might bring that habit into the reading room and not provide the best patient care possible. Reducing certain cues, replacing bad habits with more productive actions and making it more difficult to act on such habits are three ways the authors suggests radiologists work to reduce these “maladaptive habits” in their daily lives.

Habits can also help radiologist persevere in the face of what Mandell described as the “dehumanizing aspects of radiology.” Burnout is a significant concern in healthcare, specifically radiology, and specialists can form certain habits—speaking to patients at eye level, for instance—that work to combat such negative feelings.

But how does one form a specific habit? The key, Mandell explained, is to focus on a cue that is “regular and consistent” and a behavior that is “easy to perform.”

“As an example, to achieve a goal of reading one scientific paper per day, the habit should be triggered by a consistent environmental cue, and the paper must be on hand, either printed out or immediately available on a device,” he concluded. “Similar strategies can be used to conduct patient conversations at eye level, practice self-reflection, engage in mindfulness, or perform exercises to increase resiliency.”