Radiologic Technology: A Career Worth Examining

In 1895, Willhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays. That allowed doctors to have their first non-invasive look inside the human body. Today, more than a century later, x-rays are just one diagnostic tool that radiologic technology students study. There's a lot to learn in this field -- and plenty of opportunity.

Radiologic technology is more than just a career with a long name. It's a challenging career with a great deal of variety.

Alex Gontar is a professor of radiological technology at a health institute. He says that radiologic technologists produce diagnostic-quality medical images, but adds that there's much more to it than that.

"We need to use the least amount of radiation possible on the patients to produce the images and in the process provide optimum patient care by ensuring the patient is as comfortable as possible -- and safe from harm.

"The task is further complicated by the sheer number of different diagnostic procedures there are to know and the wide variety of equipment used to acquire images."

Gontar describes the range of skills used by radiologic technologists, who have to "use our knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathology and positioning to best demonstrate different body parts under different conditions. Also required is an intimate understanding of the equipment, and the amount and quality of radiation required.

"Patient-care skills are essential to know how to deal with patients with different illnesses and injury."

Leacy O'Callaghan-O'Brien is the director of advocacy, communications and events for a radiation technology association. She points out that advances in technology have made a significant impact in this industry in the last decade.

In addition to new technologies that give even us even clearer and more precise images, there is also "increasing emphasis on research within the profession, and a growing emphasis on inter-professionalism and collaboration within the health-care team," she explains.

Myke Kudlas is the vice-president of education and research at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT). He says that R.T.s, as radiologic technologists are often called, may specialize in a specific imaging technique.

"The radiologic technologists who specialize in radiation therapy, which is the delivery of high doses of radiation to treat cancer and other diseases, are radiation therapists and medical dosimetrists," he adds. Dosimetrists calculate a patient's dose of radiation and work with physicians to create a treatment plan.

Kudlas says that radiologic technologists are in a unique place in the health-care world. They work with high technology equipment, but they also work very closely with patients.

"This high-tech/high-touch combination provides R.T.s with the opportunity to help patients, but also use incredible technology," he says. "So, R.T.s must master the human side of the profession in addition to learning about medical imaging and radiation therapy equipment."

Gontar says it's that human touch that provides him with some of the most satisfying parts of the job. But he says the satisfaction of having helped someone is just the start. "It's relying on your knowledge and skills to get a diagnostic image, often under very difficult situations, such as a trauma patient in the E.R. [emergency room], a surgical procedure in the O.R.[operating room], or an unconscious patient in the I.C.U. [intensive care unit]. In those situations, you need to be able to work as a member of a team with nurses, physicians and other staff, in stressful situations -- and often with people you've not met before."

Like a lot of jobs in health care, being a radiologic technologist is a lot of work and can be very stressful, but for Gontar, the sense of helping another person makes it all worthwhile.

"The biggest sense of satisfaction I get is when a patient says 'thank you' after a particularly difficult, lengthy procedure," he says.

In the U.S. right now, there isn't a huge demand for radiologic technologists, says Kudlas. He says changes in the health-care industry and the economy are two factors. While there was a large shortage not too long ago, he says that's slowed down in the last five or six years.

"We don't know if another shortage of medical imaging technologists will occur once the economy stabilizes and many health-care questions are answered," he says.

"ASRT has conducted a great deal of research in the past that shows the demand for radiologic technologists increasing and decreasing. Right now we are in a period of decreased demand, but these periods are generally followed by a demand surge. Therefore, it depends on several factors."

But the long-term future looks bright: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that employment in this area is expected to grow faster than average, with a 17 percent increase from 2008 to 2018. They say that with an increase in age in the population, more people will need to use the services of radiologic technologists.

Students of radiologic technology can also be certified in a large number of subspecialties, which can help out in a tight job market. Here is an example of a few of the subspecialties as posted on the American Society of Radiologic Technologists website:

  • Radiographers use radiation (X-rays) to produce black-and-white images of a person's insides. The images are captured on film, computer or videotape.
  • Sonographers use sound waves to produce images of organs and tissues in the body. The sound waves send back "echoes" as they bounce off internal organs and tissues.
  • Nuclear medicine technologists administer trace amounts of radiopharmaceuticals (a source of radiation) to a patient. The radiation lets the technologist see how certain organs, tissues and bones are functioning.
  • Radiation therapists administer targeted doses of radiation to the patient's body to treat cancer or other diseases. As the radiation strikes human tissue, it produces highly energized ions that gradually shrink and destroy the nucleus of cancerous cells.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median wage of $53,240 for R.T.s in May of 2009. Gontar says it varies "depending on what kind of facility you work in. After that it depends on what additional qualifications you attain, or what type of work you prefer."

To get started in this line of work, there are college or university programs that offer degrees in medical radiologic technology. Requirements vary from state to state; many require certification, while some don't.

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