Rita Dempsey, now Director of Radiology at the Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital (Summa Health System), was inspired to enter the field of radiology after sustaining an injury (while in high school) and having to get an X-ray done. One of Dempsey’s most fulfilling moments as a radiology technologist came while performing a routine exam, when she discovered something out of place on one of the images. She took it to the radiologist who confirmed her observations; it was an aneurysm and the fact that she caught it probably saved the patient’s life.
A radiology career involves making diagnoses using various imaging procedures, namely radiation (ionizing and non-ionizing) procedures. Radiology techs and their associates carry out an essential role, from detecting potentially fatal diseases and complications early on to guiding treatments.
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A Career in Radiology
Radiology technologists (also referred to as radiology techs, radiologic technologists, radiology technicians or “rad techs”) work closely with radiologists (doctors specialized in radiology) and other physicians, particularly in a hospital environment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 61% of radiologic technologists in the United States worked in hospitals in 2010. Others worked in doctors’ offices, medical/diagnostic laboratories, outpatient facilities and other health agencies.
Dempsey explains that there are at least five different modalities within the field of radiology. The three most normally associated with radiologic technicians are standard diagnostic X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Some radiology techs also perform ultrasounds and/or nuclear medicine imaging tests. Dempsey adds that there are a lot of opportunities as part of a radiology career to advance or cross-train (becoming specialized in more than one imaging procedure).
Methods and Instrumentation
When radiology techs perform standard X-rays (also referred to as plain film radiologic technology) on the chest, bones, joints, spine, gastrointestinal tract, etc., patients are only exposed to low levels of radiation for a relatively short amount of time. Still, patients are provided with protective covering to minimize any potential risk. Radiologic technologists may also perform mammograms, a form of X-ray to diagnose breast cancer and hopefully detect it early on. Angiograms are X-rays of the heart and blood vessels; the procedure involves inserting a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin or elbow and then guiding it to the region being imaged. The catheter releases an iodine dye so that the vessels or heart chamber in question will show up more clearly on the X-ray.
A radiologic tech specialized in MRIs uses multiple types of scanners (that employ a magnetic field combined with radio frequencies) to diagnose potential disease or complications in the brain, heart, spinal chord, bones and more. CT technicians use more specialized radiation equipment hooked up to a computer system that is able to combine multiple cross-sectional images into a three-dimensional picture of the organ or internal structure being imaged.
Rad techs that perform ultrasounds use non-radioactive, non-invasive technology that generates sound waves via a transducer. Those who use nuclear medicine procedures provide their patients with low-dose radiopharmaceuticals that identify abnormalities in organs or internal structures. These structures are then imaged using a specialized camera.
In most cases, to begin a radiology career, individuals complete an Associate’s degree in Radiologic Technology or Radiology Sciences. Some radiology schools also offer certificate programs in radiology in particular specialties, such as MRI or CT. A handful of universities offer a Bachelor’s degree in radiologic technology or a similar field.
For an entry-level career as a radiologic technician or technologist, all that is generally required is an Associate’s degree plus certification/licensure (see section below). As part of an Associate’s program you will learn in the classroom and in clinical rotations about anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, patient care, radiation exposure, position and instrumentation, pharmacology and pathology.
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) maintains a database of accredited radiologic technologists programs on its website at AART.org.
According to the BLS, most states require radiologic technicians to be licensed. Generally to be licensed you must complete an accredited educational program and become certified through the ARRT (The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists). (Contact your state’s health board to find out its specific licensure requirements). The ARRT offers certification in five areas as part of the primary pathway of qualifications. These include radiography, sonography, nuclear medicine technology, radiation therapy and magnetic resonance imaging. To be eligible to write the ARRT’s certification exam(s), you must have completed an accredited educational program in a relevant field within the last five years. As of 2015, the educational program must be an academic degree (i.e. Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree). When selecting a radiology school, make sure it is accredited by the CHEA and/or USDE and that its didactic and clinical components meet the ARRT’s core competencies.
Once you are certified, one of the requirements for maintaining your credential is to pursue Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits. Many certifying agencies will require it, and it’s good for your career. The ARRT offers professional development courses, as does the Radiochemistry Society. As you further specialize and work on advancing your career, you can pursue post-primary certification through the ARRT in areas such as CT, MRI, bone density, mammography and other specialties.
Radiology Technician Salary
According to the BLS, the median salary for radiologic technologists was $56,450/year in 2012*. The American Society of Radiologic Technologists released its “Radiologic Technologist Wage and Salary Survey 2010”. It revealed that the average salary for all its respondents was $61,733/year. The same survey revealed that radiologic techs that specialized in particular areas made higher incomes. For example, those practicing general radiography earned $53,935/year compared to those in mammography ($60,263), radiation therapy ($79,125), mammography ($60,263) and MRI ($65,098).
*Salary information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics