Can a Radiologist Diagnose Cancer?

Radiology, or imaging, is a broad medical field that includes the practice of several different types of imaging techniques. Doctors who specialize in radiology are called radiologists, and they use imaging to diagnose and treat medical conditions. Radiologists typically spend most of their time reading and interpreting diagnostic images, such as X-rays, MRI scans, and CT scans. 

In general, a radiologist can diagnose cancer with acceptable accuracy. After all, these doctors see patients with suspicious findings on scans daily! But how great is their diagnostic accuracy? Do radiologists have the ability to diagnose cancer without any help from another field? This article from Mermaid Beach Radiology will cover the basics of whether or not a radiologist can diagnose cancer.

What is the Accuracy of a Diagnosis Made by a Radiologist?

There’s one way to know for sure: a study. And there have been a lot of them! In general, radiologists with any level of training are pretty accurate when diagnosing cancer. After all, they see patients with suspicious findings on scans every day! In one study of three different types of cancer — lung, liver, and colorectal — diagnostic accuracy ranged from 90-100%. 

Diagnostic accuracy depends on a few factors: – The type and subtype of cancer being diagnosed – The experience level of the radiologist reading the images – The quality of the imaging.

Can a Radiologist Make a Cancer Diagnosis on Their Own?

When you visit the doctor, you’re likely to see several people during your exam: a medical assistant, a nurse, and a radiologist. It’s important to remember that, as an imaging-only specialty, radiologists don’t treat patients — they interpret imaging. 

This means that a radiologist can make a diagnosis independently, but only within the realm of imaging. A radiologist will likely order blood tests and other lab work if they suspect a patient has cancer. And importantly, a radiologist doesn’t have the authority to tell a patient to undergo treatment! That’s an essential difference between a radiologist and a pathologist. 

A pathologist makes a diagnosis based on tissue samples. They may order a biopsy, but they don’t interpret imaging. Mammography, for example, is an imaging technique often used to detect breast cancer.


How Do Radiologists Make a Cancer Diagnosis?

Remember that a radiologist’s imaging interpretation is based on experience and knowledge. Take a look at the example of breast imaging again: imaging can be done differently. Mammography is the most common imaging technique used to screen for breast cancer. 

Mammography uses low-dose X-rays to image the breast. When used as a screening tool, it can help find abnormal growths called tumors that are too small to be felt. It can also help find calcifications, a sign of a malignant tumor. However, mammography can’t tell a radiologist what type of tumor it is. That’s where the doctor’s years of experience come into play. 

A radiologist will read the image and use their knowledge and training to interpret it. They’ll consider the patient’s age and whether they have any risk factors for cancer. They’ll look at the image to see whether there are any calcifications, masses, or abnormal tissue. They’ll consider whether the patient is right- or left-handed when evaluating breast symmetry.

What Are the Limitations of a Radiologist’s Cancer Diagnosis?

There are some limitations to the diagnostic accuracy of a radiologist’s diagnosis. Let’s go back to the example of breast imaging. If a radiologist sees calcifications in the breast, they may diagnose a patient with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). However, DCIS is often misread as cancer by inexperienced radiologists. 

An experienced pathologist will identify the difference between malignancy and mere calcifications in this case. This is a critical component of cancer diagnosis that radiologists don’t have the authority to do on their own. Pathologists also have a role to play in the diagnosis of colorectal cancer

Screening tests like a colonoscopy and CT colonography can help detect polyps, which are abnormal and potentially cancerous growths that form in the colon. Pathologists examine these polyps to determine whether or not they require treatment.

Bottom line

Like every other medical specialty, the diagnostic accuracy of a radiologist’s cancer diagnosis depends on the doctor’s experience level and the imaging quality. Radiologists have an impressive track record in cancer diagnosis, but they’re not infallible. 

Remember that an accurate diagnosis doesn’t mean treatment is the best option. It’s essential to consult with your doctor to determine the best course of action based on your unique situation.