Radiology’s Most Influential: How Dr. Vijay Rao has broken barriers and blazed her own trail

By Chaunie Brusie

Vijay Rao, MD, FACR, senior vice president of Enterprise Radiology Jefferson Health and professor and department chair of radiology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, calls her decades-long career in imaging a “wonderful journey.” Rao says: “Radiology is something I am very passionate about. It’s so central to providing patient care and transforming patient delivery.”

Born and raised in India, Rao followed in her physician father’s footsteps to graduate from medical school in New Delhi. She came to Philadelphia after medical school to complete her radiologic training at Thomas Jefferson—which is where she has stayed ever since.

On the scholastic front, Rao has also been a mover and shaker, rising through the academic ranks. One of her most noteworthy accomplishments came in 2002, when she was named chair of Jefferson’s radiology department—making her the first female chair in Jefferson’s 170-year history.

Along with that significant accomplishment, Rao’s awards have included being named to Philadelphia Magazine’s list of “Top Docs” in 2018, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010; winning the Association of University Radiologists’ Gold Medal Award, in addition to the Asian Oceanian Society of Radiology’s Gold Medal Award; and receiving honorary memberships to radiology societies in Israel, France, and Europe. She also served as president of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in 2018. “I feel very grateful for that opportunity,” Rao says.

In her early days, Rao discovered a passion for tomography of the skull base, temporal bones, and orbits. “The films would stack up and nobody wanted to touch [them], so I started to do that and it was just an incredibly exciting area for me,” she remembers. As CT and MRI technology evolved, so did her own career as a head and neck radiologist with national recognition. Currently, Jefferson Health has 14 hospitals, with Rao serving as the senior vice president for radiology enterprise. She also focuses on health services research, remarking that she is a strong proponent of influencing policy.

Despite having been at the same institution for 40 years, Rao’s role has changed every 10 to 15 years, which she says has helped to keep her at the cutting edge of innovation in the field.  “There was never a chance to get stagnant or bored,” she adds. “It’s been great.”

A Career Pinnacle

Rao lists the peak of her professional career as serving as president of the globally influential RSNA. “Truly, I look at that as the pinnacle of my professional life,” she notes.

Additionally, she is extremely proud of her leadership—especially as a female—in her role as academic chair. “I was named chair of an academic radiology department at a time when there were only a handful of female chairs in the country,” she adds. “It is gratifying to look back and see what I have been able to build at Jefferson. I am fortunate to have had strong mentors during my professional career.”

Her affinity for leadership also lends itself into her passion for educating and training future radiologists; she served as vice chair in the department and headed the resident program at Thomas Jefferson for 16 years. “The current residents are my kids’ age, which is interesting,” Rao observes, adding: “The current generation likes to take a little more time for themselves, which I didn’t do [but] I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Creating a Legacy

She takes pride in having successfully built a strong academic department that has also been entrepreneurial. And healthcare, it seems, is in Rao’s blood. Her two children are both physicians themselves—her son is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University and a rheumatologist at Brigham’s Women’s Hospital in Boston, and her daughter is a pediatrician in Portland, Maine.

The tireless radiologist has also been “blessed” with five “absolutely delightful” grandchildren— all girls—and she spends any free time she has with them. Rao’s granddaughters, who range in age from 2 to 9 years old, beg their grandmother to make their favorite dishes of chicken curry, cauliflower, and Indian rice.

And in the end, despite all of her career accomplishments, Rao simply wishes to make her family proud of her.  “I want my grandchildren to know my heritage, and know they can achieve anything they want with hard work, grit, resilience, and humility”