“How long have you been practicing?! And you went back to do an ultrasound fellowship? That’s amazing! I could never do that.” This was pretty much how the conversation went when people found out about my ultrasound background. You see, after my residency training, I practiced for 2 years as a Locum Tenens physician, then an additional 5 years in a community emergency department (ED), before going back for an ultrasound (US) fellowship. Sure, it is an unconventional path, but I believe if you want it badly enough, you can do it, too.
To me, the biggest challenge was the salary cut. Many US fellows make somewhere around $50–70,000 annually. For most of us working in a community ED, that is a fourth or a fifth of what we could typically earn in a year. It all depends on your situation: Do you have kids? Car payments? Other significant bills? Is your mortgage reasonable? Do you have an emergency fund to fall back on? Does your spouse make a decent living? I recommend creating a realistic monthly budget. Be honest with yourself and decide what you can and cannot live without: cable with all the trimmings, the monthly wine and beer clubs, frequent international travel, the latest trend in fashion, the newest must-have gadget, and weekly trips to your favorite restaurants. If money is still tight, check to see if there is an option to moonlight.
The second challenge was going back to student mode. The assigned readings, coursework, podcasts, and post-chapter exams were time-consuming, but not daunting. Although, in the beginning, physics was giving me a bit of heartburn. I think the major adjustment I encountered was interacting with attending physicians and US faculty who were younger than me. There was also the research requirement, which most community-based emergency physicians (EPs) happily abandoned. As for the mandatory clinical hours (scanning and ED shifts), many full-time EPs would experience a reduction of 2–3 shifts per month. However, as a fellow, you have additional labor-intensive responsibilities, which include research, helping with the US quality assurance process, weekly US conferences, medical student US labs, EM resident US lectures and labs, US teaching shifts, and so forth.
Another challenge I grappled with was work-related musculoskeletal complaints from repetitive motion. In addition to our US teaching load, we were expected to perform about 4 to 6 9-hour scanning shifts a month, averaging about 22 to 28 scans a shift. Perhaps it was my age, but after a full day of scanning, I often had mild to moderate wrist, hip, and back pains. To be frank, I did not exactly practice good US ergonomic techniques, which in general is not often taught in EM US fellowship programs. Luckily, these were minor complaints and never progressed to anything serious.
With these challenges, you might wonder if it was all worth it. I absolutely believe so. In fact, I have often said that it was the best career decision that I had made so far. Before I even finished my fellowship, I was presented with 3 lucrative job offers. I instantly became a more competitive and coveted applicant. I had carved a niche for myself, and I knew that I would be vital to any ED I join. With my US experience, I improved my diagnostic and procedural skills. Not to mention, US made my shifts more fun. Lastly, if you are still not convinced, most US fellowships are only a year long, and time goes by fast.
Have you returned to school to gain more training in ultrasound? What was your experience? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.
Kristine S. Robinson is an Assistant Professor and Ultrasound faculty at West Virginia University (WVU) Department of Emergency Medicine in Morgantown, WV. She finished her Emergency Medicine residency at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA, in 2008. Afterward, she worked for 2 years as a Locum Tenens physician and 5 years in a community hospital before returning to WVU to complete an Ultrasound fellowship in 2016.