Radiologic technologists operate equipment that creates images of a patient’s body tissues, organs, and bones for the purpose of medical diagnoses and therapies. These images allow physicians to know the exact nature of a patient’s injury or disease, such as the location of a broken bone or the confirmation of an ulcer.
Before an X-ray examination, radiologic technologists may administer drugs or chemical mixtures to the patient to better highlight internal organs. They place the patient in the correct position between the X-ray source and film and protect body areas that are not to be exposed to radiation. After determining the proper duration and intensity of the exposure, they operate the controls to beam X-rays through the patient and expose the photographic film.
They may operate computer-aided imaging equipment that does not involve X rays and may help to treat diseased or affected areas of the body by exposing the patient to specified concentrations of radiation for prescribed times. Radiologic technologists and technicians hold about 182,000 jobs in the United States.
Radiologic Technologist Career History
Radiography uses a form of electromagnetic radiation to create an image on a photographic film. Unlike photography, where the film is exposed to ordinary light rays (the most familiar kind of electromagnetic radiation), in radiography the film is exposed to X rays, which have shorter wavelengths and different energy levels.
X rays were discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen in 1895. X rays, or roentgen rays, are generated in a glass vacuum tube (an X-ray tube) that contains two differently charged electrodes, one of which gives off electrons. When the electrons travel from one electrode to the other, some of the energy they emit is x-radiation. X rays are able to pass through skin and muscle and other soft body tissue, while bones and denser objects show up as white images on the photographic emulsion when film is exposed to X rays. A picture of the inside of the body can thus be developed.
All forms of radiation are potentially harmful. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation may tan the skin, but it can also result in burning and other damage to tissue, including the development of cancer cells. Low-level infrared radiation can warm tissues, but at higher levels it cooks them like microwaves do; the process can destroy cells. Protective measures to avoid all unnecessary exposure to radiation must be taken whenever X rays are used, because they can have both short- and long-term harmful effects.
There are other forms of diagnostic imaging that do not expose patients to any potentially harmful radiation. Sound waves are used in ultrasound technology, or sonography, to obtain a picture of internal organs. High-frequency sound waves beamed into the patient’s body bounce back and create echoes that can be recorded on a paper strip or photograph. Ultrasound is very frequently employed to determine the size and development of a human fetus. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields, radio waves, and computers to create images of the patient’s body.
The use of imaging techniques that do not involve radiation grew rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s because of the safety of these techniques and because of great improvements in computer technology. Computers can now handle a vast quantity of data much more rapidly, making it possible to enhance images to great clarity and sharpness.
The Job of Radiologic Technologists
All radiological work is done at the request of and under the supervision of a physician. Just as a prescription is required for certain drugs to be dispensed or administered, so must a physician’s request be issued before a patient can receive any kind of imaging procedure.
There are four primary disciplines in which radiologic technologists may work: radiography (taking X-ray pictures or radiographs), nuclear medicine, radiation therapy, and sonography. In each of these medical imaging methods, the technologist works under the direction of a physician who specializes in interpreting the pictures produced by X rays, other imaging techniques, or radiation therapy. Technologists can work in more than one of these areas. Some technologists specialize in working with a particular part of the body or a specific condition.
X-ray pictures, or radiographs, are the most familiar use of radiologic technology. They are used to diagnose and determine treatment for a wide variety of afflictions, including ulcers, tumors, and bone fractures. Chest X-ray pictures can determine whether a person has a lung disease. Radiologic technologists who operate X-ray equipment first help the patient prepare for the radiologic examination. After explaining the procedure, they may administer a substance that makes the part of the body being imaged more clearly visible on the film. They make sure that the patient is not wearing jewelry or other metal that would obstruct the X-rays. They position the person sitting, standing, or lying down so that the correct view of the body can be radiographed, and then they cover adjacent areas with lead shielding to prevent unnecessary exposure to radiation.
The technologist positions the X-ray equipment at the proper angle and distance from the part to be radiographed and determines exposure time based on the location of the particular organ or bone and thickness of the body in that area. The controls of the X-ray machine are set to produce pictures of the correct density, contrast, and detail. Placing the photographic film closest to the body part being x-rayed, the technologist takes the requested images, repositioning the patient as needed. Typically, there are standards regarding the number of views to be taken of a given body part. The film is then developed for the radiologist or other physician to interpret.
In a fluoroscopic examination (a more complex imaging procedure that examines the gastrointestinal area), a beam of X-rays passes through the body and onto a fluorescent screen, enabling the physician to see the internal organs in motion. For these, the technologist first prepares a solution of barium sulfate to be administered to the patient, either rectally or orally, depending on the exam. The barium sulfate increases the contrast between the digestive tract and surrounding organs, making the image clearer. The technologist follows the physician’s guidance in positioning the patient, monitors the machine’s controls, and takes any follow-up radiographs as needed.
Radiologic technologists may learn other imaging procedures such as computed tomography (CT) scanning, which uses X-rays to get detailed cross-sectional images of the body’s internal structures, and MRI, which uses radio waves, powerful magnets, and computers to obtain images of body parts. These diagnostic procedures are becoming more common and usually require radiologic technologists to undergo additional on-the-job training.
Other specialties within the radiography discipline include mammography and cardiovascular interventional technology. In addition, some technologists may focus on radiography of joints and bones, or they may be involved in such areas as angiocardiography (visualization of the heart and large blood vessels) or neuroradiology (the use of radiation to diagnose diseases of the nervous system).
Radiologic technologists perform a wide range of duties, from greeting patients and putting them at ease by explaining the procedures to developing the finished film. Their administrative tasks include maintaining patients’ records, recording equipment usage and maintenance, organizing work schedules, and managing a radiologist’s private practice or hospital’s radiology department. Some radiologic technologists teach in programs to educate other technologists.
Radiologic Technologist Career Requirements
If this career interests you, take plenty of math and science classes in high school. Biology, chemistry, and physics classes will be particularly useful to you. Take computer classes to become comfortable working with this technology. English classes will help you improve your communication skills. You will need these skills both when interacting with the patients and when working as part of a health care team. Finally, consider taking photography classes. Photography classes will give you experience with choosing film, framing an image, and developing photographs.
After high school, you will need to complete an education program in radiography. Programs range in length from one to four years. Depending on length, the programs award a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree. Two-year associate’s degree programs are the most popular option.
Educational programs are available in hospitals, medical centers, colleges and universities, and vocational and technical institutes. It is also possible to get radiologic technology training in the armed forces.
To enter an accredited program, you must be a high school graduate; some programs require one or two years of higher education. Courses in radiologic technology education programs include anatomy, physiology, patient care, physics, radiation protection, medical ethics, principles of imaging, medical terminology, radiobiology, and pathology. For some supervisory or administrative jobs in this field, a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be required.
Certification or Licensing
Radiologic technologists can become certified through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) after graduating from an accredited program in radiography, radiation therapy, or nuclear medicine. After becoming certified, many technologists choose to register with the ARRT. Registration is an annual procedure required to maintain the certification. Registered technologists meet the following three criteria: They agree to comply with the ARRT rules and regulations, comply with the ARRT standards of ethics, and meet continuing education requirements. Only technologists who are currently registered can designate themselves as ARRT Registered Technologists and use the initials RT after their names. Although registration and certification are voluntary, many jobs are open only to technologists who have acquired these credentials.
In addition to being registered in the various imaging disciplines, radiologic technologists can receive advanced qualifications in each of the four radiography specializations: mammography, CT, MRI, and cardiovascular interventional technology. As the work of radiologic technologists grows increasingly complex and employment opportunities become more competitive, the desirability of registration and certification will also grow.
An increasing number of states have set up licensing requirements for radiologic technologists. As of 2005, 38 states and Puerto Rico require radiologic technologists to be licensed. You will need to check with the state in which you hope to work about specific requirements there.
Radiologic technologists should be responsible individuals with a mature and caring nature. They should be personable and enjoy interacting with all types of people, including those who are very ill. A compassionate attitude is essential to deal with patients who may be frightened or in pain.
Exploring Radiologic Technologist Career
There is no way to gain direct experience in this profession without the appropriate qualifications. However, it is possible to learn about the duties of radiologic technologists by talking with them and observing the facilities and equipment they use. It is also possible to have interviews with teachers of radiologic technology. Ask your guidance counselor or a science teacher to help you contact local hospitals or schools with radiography programs to locate technologists who are willing to talk to an interested student.
As with any career in health care, volunteering at a local hospital, clinic, or nursing home provides an excellent opportunity for you to explore your interest in the field. Most hospitals are eager for volunteers, and working in such a setting will give you a chance to see health care professionals in action as well as to have some patient contact.
There are approximately 182,000 radiologic technologists working in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of these technologists work in hospitals. Radiologic technologists also find employment in doctors’ offices and clinics, at X-ray labs, and in nursing homes.
With more states regulating the practice of radiologic technology, certification by the appropriate accreditation body for a given specialty is quickly becoming a necessity for employment. If you get your training from a school that lacks accreditation or if you learn on the job, you may have difficulty in qualifying for many positions, especially those with a wide range of assignments. If you are enrolled in a hospital educational program, you may be able to get a job with the hospital upon completion of the program. If you are in a degree program, get help in finding a job through your school’s placement office.
More than half of all radiologic technologists are employed in hospitals where there are opportunities for advancement to administrative and supervisory positions such as chief technologist or technical administrator. Other technologists develop special clinical skills in advanced imaging procedures, such as CT scanning or MRI. Some radiologic technologists qualify as instructors. Radiologic technologists who hold bachelor’s degrees have more opportunities for advancement. The technologist who wishes to become a teacher or administrator will find that a master’s degree and considerable experience are necessary.
Salaries for radiologic technologists compare favorably with those of similar health care professionals. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of radiologic technologists and technicians were $43,350 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent, which typically includes those just starting out in the field, earned less than $30,020. The highest paid 10 percent, which typically includes those with considerable experience, earned more than $60,210.
Median annual earnings of radiologic technologists and technicians who worked in medical and diagnostic laboratories were $46,620 in 2004. Those who worked in hospitals earned a median of $43,350, and those who worked in offices and clinics of medical doctors earned $40,290.
Most technologists take part in their employers’ vacation and sick leave provisions. In addition, most employers offer benefits such as health insurance and pensions.
Full-time technologists generally work eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. In addition, they may be on call for some night emergency duty or weekend hours, which pays in equal time off or additional compensation.
In diagnostic radiologic work, technologists perform most of their tasks while on their feet. They move around a lot and often are called upon to lift patients who need help in moving.
Great care is exercised to protect technologists from radiation exposure. Each technologist wears a badge that measures radiation exposure, and records are kept of total exposure accumulated over time. Other routine precautions include the use of safety devices (such as lead aprons, lead gloves, and other shielding) and the use of disposable gowns, gloves, and masks. Careful attention to safety procedures has greatly reduced or eliminated radiation hazards for the technologist.
Radiologic technology is dedicated to conserving life and health. Technologists derive satisfaction from their work, which helps promote health and alleviate human suffering. Those who specialize in radiation therapy need to be able to handle the close relationships they inevitably develop while working with very sick or dying people over a period of time.
Radiologic Technologist Career Outlook
Overall, employment for radiologic technologists is expected to grow faster than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A major reason for this growth is the increasing elderly population in the United States, which will create a need for radiologic technologists’ services. The demand for qualified technologists in some areas of the country far exceeds the supply. This shortage is particularly acute in rural areas and small towns. Those who are willing to relocate to these areas may have increased job prospects. Radiologic technologists who are trained to do more than one type of imaging procedure will also find that they have increased job opportunities. Finally, those specializing in sonography are predicted to have more opportunities than those working only with radiographs. One reason for this is ultrasound’s increasing popularity due to its lack of possible side effects.
In the years to come, increasing numbers of radiologic technologists will be employed in settings outside of hospitals, such as physicians’ offices, clinics, health maintenance organizations, laboratories, government agencies, and diagnostic imaging centers. This pattern will be part of the overall trend toward lowering health care costs by delivering more care outside of hospitals. Nevertheless, hospitals will remain the major employers of radiologic technologists for the near future. Because of the increasing importance of radiologic technology in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, it is unlikely that hospitals will do fewer radiologic procedures than in the past. Instead, they try to do more on an outpatient basis and on weekends and evenings. This should increase the demand for part-time technologists and thus open more opportunities for flexible work schedules.