Q&A: Nisha Mehta on how pursuing passion projects can make radiologists better at their job

Physicians are pursuing passion projects, or “side gigs,” outside of their day-to-day responsibilities more now than ever before. Some physicians stick to healthcare, working as a guest commentator or a guest speaker, while others jump into a completely different line of work, enjoying a break from the world they’ve been surrounded by for their entire adult lives.

Nisha Mehta, MD, a musculoskeletal and breast imaging radiologist at the VA Health Care Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, is an example of this growing trend. After dipping her toe into the waters of freelance writing just three years ago, Mehta is now a well-respected voice within the healthcare industry, finding success as both a writer and a speaker. In addition, Mehta launched and manages a Facebook group, Physician Side Gigs, that includes more than 12,000 members and counting.

Mehta spoke with Radiology Business about this new-look economy for physicians and explained how pursuing her own passions has made her a better radiologist. The full conversation is below.

Radiology Business: What first sparked your interest in pursuing work outside of your daily responsibilities as a practicing radiologist?

Nisha Mehta, MD: I actually first started pursuing additional work because I was bored—because I wasn’t actually practicing at the time. About three years ago, my husband and I had found new jobs and were planning on moving to the Northeast. But a few months before our anticipated move, we had a last-minute change of plans and ended up moving to Charlotte for a great opportunity for my husband. As a result, I ended up with a six-month gap in employment. It was during that time that I started wanting something interesting to fill my time as I waited for credentialing at my new job to go through. So I started writing, and that began to gain traction just as I was going back to work full time. It was really fun and something I did not want to give up, so I just kept going.

Since we’re now living in this era of value-based care, I have to ask: Can committing time to various side gigs make someone a better radiologist?

Yes, I think it can. It seems counter-intuitive, but I think it makes me a better radiologist in a few different ways. The most important of those is that pursuing side gigs can help you avoid burnout. Personally, I’m doing something that I find interesting and new, and that keeps me more excited overall as a person. That happiness translates into all aspects of my life, including my work day. Numerous studies have shown that when physicians stress their own wellness and do things that make themselves happy, patient outcomes actually improve.

Also, my side gigs have made me a lot more involved on social media. Through that, whether its Twitter, Facebook or other outlets, I feel like I get regular updates on what is current in the field. I know more about data that is coming out and what’s going on at conferences. I’m also networking with more radiologists and I’m now able to draw from their respective expertise. Additionally, social media enables groups of radiologists to come together on many different fronts and gives momentum to certain movements within radiology in terms of advocacy and mentorship. I think the field will be better for it.

How else can pursuing these side gigs benefit a physician?

I did mention the networking already, but anytime you develop a stronger network, there are a lot of unexpected benefits, tangible and intangible. I find more every day. You develop new friendships, you’re able to potentially recruit new people to your practice, and you may learn of new opportunities, both personally and professionally. Then, obviously, there are the actual monetary benefits. There are tax benefits with doing 10-99 work, and there’s the money you make directly from the business itself.

All of that said, I find that the best thing in terms of benefits is the satisfaction that comes with creating something on your own. As physicians, we have pretty defined pathways for our career. We take one step after another like we’re supposed to, and with the way the system is set up, there isn’t always a lot of room for creativity. So for me, it has been great to develop something by myself and pursue something I’m passionate about on my own terms. I think that’s really exciting. Yes, it has developed into a business, but it’s also a hobby and a passion, and that’s great.

Have you ever heard of a physician’s employer not wanting them to work other jobs in their free time? Or is there ever a concern that colleagues will find it unprofessional?

Well, there are definitely people who are worried about what their employers or colleagues are going to think, but as long as it’s not detracting from the work you’re doing at your actual job, there isn’t really a lot of downside. I always advise people to check their contracts and make sure they aren’t violating an aspect of them, especially if their side gig is clinical.

My job has been really supportive of my writing and my speaking engagements. In some ways, I think it can actually be good publicity for your employer, if done appropriately.

In terms of concerns about what your colleagues and others may think, I think you have to set your own terms for what you are comfortable with in terms of mixing the two lives. I know of physician finance bloggers who have chosen to maintain anonymity for various—very legitimate, in my mind—reasons. As physicians, we do worry a lot about perception, so I think people are careful about putting things out there when they first start out. They want to make sure it’s successful before they tell others. Even in my case, with my Physician Side Gigs group on Facebook, there were people who wanted to write about it, but I was hesitant and said no for a long time. In my mind, I wanted clear objectives and a certain legitimacy before it was out there for the world to see that I was doing it. I told myself that when we hit 10,000 physicians, I’d test the waters with an article or two. Fortunately, I’ve gotten a great response, and I’m really excited to talk about it now, because it’s causing even more physicians to join the conversations about side gigs, job flexibility, burnout and physician finances, and that’s a lot of what my writing and speaking is all about. But I was definitely apprehensive about doing it.

Do you have any advice for physicians who want to potentially pursue a side gig, but don’t know where to start?

Make sure you are really passionate about the side gig. You have to enjoy it. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on it, especially at the beginning, so you have to ask yourself what you want to spend your time doing and what you can stand behind. Also, your excitement will show, and go a long way towards getting others excited about it. Do your research, find your niche and put in the effort that you need to be successful.

If you need to brand yourself, invest time, energy, and money into developing that brand. If you need to figure out legal or tax implications, consult with an attorney. If you need coaching or to do some background research, do it. If you need to learn about investing or real estate, put that time in before you jump in head first. In that way, it’s no different than pursuing medicine; you need your fundamentals in place before you can apply them.

Lastly, use your networks! For example, if you’re a radiologist and want to do consulting work, reach out to the device companies and technology companies and see if they know of a need for physician expertise. It’s always easier to start when you have an inside track.