What Does it Mean to Study Radiologic Science?
Thirty years ago, this field was more commonly known as radiology, and it focused primarily on creating images of the body's internal structure, organs, and tissues to diagnose diseases, study injuries, or administer therapeutic treatments. Innovations in imaging technology, especially during the 1980s, allowed many of these areas to branch into specialties of their own. Anyone who has ever twisted an ankle, suffered a broken limb, or had a mammogram has probably used the services of a radiologic science professional.
A career in radiologic science is a fascinating one--and it provides steady work, thanks to the rapid growth of the healthcare industry. Often, the images obtained by radiologic science professionals are the first line of diagnosis and treatment for a patient. The degree allows you to become a vital member of the healthcare team without the financial and time commitments required by medical school. Training for some occupations in radiology can take as little as one or two years, making you eligible for a job that pays well and contributes to society.
With an associate degree in radiologic science, you can qualify for a career at a hospital, healthcare clinic, or managed-care facility, and earn a comfortable living immediately after school. If you're already working in the healthcare field, you can obtain this certification and training to advance your career or to move from another specialty.
Healthcare is the largest and fastest-growing industry in the U.S. The demand for skilled radiologic professionals is already among the highest in the field, and it will continue to grow as technology advances, healthcare facilities expand, and baby boomers age. With life expectancies increasing and new treatments constantly in development, the need for skilled radiologic technicians and specialists should remain strong for many years to come.
Types of Radiologic Science Degrees
Typically, radiologic science degree programs require a high school diploma or GED for admittance. It is helpful to have some background in or aptitude for mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Some programs prefer applicants with backgrounds in science or a health profession. College coursework can include anatomy, physiology, instrumentation, basic physics, patient care, and medical ethics.
Formal training can take as little as one year for a certificate program or four years for a bachelor's degree. The most common program is the two-year associate degree. It is also important to find a program that has been approved by a recognized national accrediting association, such as the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiographic Technology. Most hospitals and major healthcare providers look for this during the hiring process.
The demand for radiologic science professionals has resulted in a substantial number of organizations that offer scholarships for training. It is worthwhile to check with various professional organizations, guidance counselors, or even hospitals and healthcare providers to learn what opportunities are available for financial aid.
This increased demand has also contributed to the availability of online degrees in radiologic science. Working adults can learn the fundamentals of the profession online while performing any required fieldwork locally. Online degrees have become particularly popular among currently employed healthcare professionals who seek to change specialties or qualify for higher-level positions.
Is an Advanced Degree Necessary to Be a Radiologic Science Professional?
Because careers in radiologic science encompass a variety of jobs and skill levels, the amount of education required by employers varies tremendously. While some jobs may require a one-year certification or two-year associate degree, some may require a four-year bachelor's degree. A career as a full-fledged radiologist requires medical school. The typical person radiologic technician spends one to two years in school.
Some institutions may require additional coursework or a master's degree in business administration or health administration to become a program director.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Radiologic Science?
A radiologic science professional might be trained in many areas or choose to specialize in one. The best-known of the radiologic sciences is the X-ray, but new technology allows images to be taken using CT scans, magnetic imaging, ultrasound, and other techniques.
Radiologic technicians control the devices that perform these essential diagnostic functions. As such, they work directly with a medical team that includes doctors and nurses. It is the role of the radiologic science professional to perform the imaging, select the best and most useful images, and offer analysis to the other members of the patient's team. Physicians head the patient-care team and radiologic science professionals must strictly adhere to their guidelines and to regulations; in particular, most states forbid technicians to discuss diagnoses with the patient. The input offered to the team, however, can be invaluable in pinpointing a patient's problem. The technician might examine an X-ray to determine whether a bone is broken, for example, or they might detect a spot of cancer.
To take quality images, the radiologic science professional must have solid training in human anatomy, radiation physics, radiographic position, equipment operation, and film processing. She must be prepared to perform the imaging over any part of the body and produce accurate images that could result in a life-saving discovery for the patient undergoing the scan.
Radiologic science professionals must also work closely with the patient without offering medical advice, which requires good judgment and communication skills. Patients can be confused or upset while undergoing an imaging. The technician must explain to the patient how the technology works and outline what will be happening during the procedure. She must prepare the patient so that the procedure is performed as safely as possible. She must also be able to answer the patient's questions about the procedure, but not about the outcome of the tests.
Advancements in technology, such as the development of magnetic and sonic imaging, have made imaging safer than ever. In some instances, however, especially with the use of X-rays, the patient and the technician must be properly prepared to avoid unnecessary exposure. In other instances, patients are asked to drink a solution called a contrast medium, which allows doctors and radiologic science professionals to view soft tissues in the body.
Along with operating the equipment and administering patient care, radiologic science professionals are responsible for keeping track of patient records and maintaining the equipment. Depending on the size and type of department, they might also be required to manage the department, create work schedules, or purchase the equipment.
More than half of all radiologic science professionals work in hospitals. However, open positions continue to appear in physician's offices, diagnostic imaging centers, medical laboratories, mobile units, and outpatient care centers. These jobs can be somewhat physically demanding. In addition to being on their feet for long periods of time, radiologic science professionals may have to lift or turn patients. Some may be required to work "on-call" shifts in which they have to be available for emergencies.
The duties of a radiologic science professional can be as varied as the facilities and communities in which he or she might work. Someone working a night shift in a metropolitan trauma unit may face nonstop activity throughout the shift. In smaller, more rural departments, the shift might revolve entirely around appointments. Regardless of the location, the technician spends a lot of the day working on a computer, recording, enhancing, and studying images.
Planning for a Career in Radiologic Science
Do you have what it takes to become a radiologic science professional? Consider asking yourself these questions.
- Do I have a passion for helping others?
- Do I enjoy working with computer technology?
- Am I able to communicate well with others?
- Do I enjoy learning about human anatomy?
- Were math, biology, and chemistry interesting classes for me in high school?
Career Specializations Within Radiologic Science
One other important consideration for the potential radiologic science professional is learning a second language. Regardless of the size of the community, being bilingual (particularly in Spanish) will come in handy at some point in your career. While being bilingual might not be a requirement for a department, in metropolitan areas someone with a second language may receive preference during the hiring process.
With advanced technology and the ability to enhance images, the role of the radiologic technologist has become much more complex. On-campus and online colleges with radiologic science degrees offer different specializations within the major. It is important for students considering enrollment in a radiologic science degree program to consider which specialization he or she might be interested in studying.The following is a list of specializations within the field of radiologic science:
This job title covers a range of functions that produce images for patient assessment and diagnosis. It is sometimes used to refer generally to major career specialties. Sometimes called radiographers, these professionals take X-rays and administer non-radioactive materials to patients to produce diagnostic images. This is a very detail-oriented job, because the technologist is responsible for ensuring that all the measurements are correct and that the patient has been properly prepared and covered before an X-ray is taken.
Some radiologic technologists specialize in mammography. They produce images of breast tissue to help in the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. By far, the majority of radiologic technologists work in hospitals. However, with the growth of outpatient care in recent years, many more positions are appearing in the offices of physicians and in diagnostic imaging centers.
Diagnostic medical sonographers use high-frequency sound waves, called ultrasound, to create images that assist doctors in diagnosing disease, injury, or other physical ailments.
Sonographers may specialize in the brain (neurosonography), the heart (echocardiography), abdominal sonography, OB/GYN sonography, blood vessels (vascular sonography), and the eyes (ophthalmologic sonography).
Obstetric and gynecologic sonographers study the female reproductive system, although they might be best known for producing the images of the fetus in the womb. This allows the physician and mother to track the health and growth of the baby. Because sonography does not involve radiation, it is a popular treatment.
When this technology became popular in the 1980s, it was more commonly known as a CAT scan, but today it is officially referred to as CT. As a patient is sent through a "tube," X-ray images are made in short "slices," much as a loaf of bread might be sliced. This provides the CT specialist and physician a more detailed and accurate look at the patient. Unlike a radiograph, the CT scan can "see" organs separately rather than blended together as sometimes could happen. The CT computer can also be used to enhance the image afterward.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Unlike most other types of radiologic imaging, MRI does not require X-rays to create images and is less likely to cause any tissue damage in the process. Like CT scan images, MRI images are created by putting the patient in a machine that creates sliced cross section images of the anatomy. Instead of X-rays, however, the images are created with a large, powerful magnet.
Nuclear medicine technologists use radiopharmaceuticals through injection, inhalation, or ingestion to produce images. Special cameras are used to pick up these drugs once they enter the system. This is helpful in producing images of the brain, heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. The radioactive tracers used during the process require great care from the technologist including in storage and disposal. He must monitor the process constantly to ensure the safety of the patient.
Radiologists are physicians who specialize in X-rays and other radioactive material for imaging. In addition to completing college and medical school, the radiologist must have about five years of radiology residency training.
Radiation therapists assist radiation oncologists (cancer specialists) by targeting radiation to slow or kill cancer cells in a patient.
Typically assigned to a radiologist, the radiologist assistant helps with patient management and assessment as well as performing radiologic procedures. The assistant cannot diagnose, prescribe medications, or order tests.
Because arteries and veins do not show up on a radiograph, an agent is injected into them by these specialists. An examination of arteries is called an arteriogram and an examination of the veins is a venogram.
Because the performance of radiologic science professionals means so much to the well-being of patients, many organizations hire or promote professionals to ensure that equipment and performances remain of the highest quality.
Many radiologic science professionals stay in patient care positions for their entire careers, while others try different specializations as their careers progress. Supervisory positions are often available, depending on the size of the facility. A middle-management supervisor might oversee hundreds of people in a department.
Opportunities exist in other areas, such as sales of film and equipment. The companies that sell the multi-million dollar imaging machines also train the technologists who will operate them. Application specialists work for manufacturers and travel to the customer's site to train the staff. Other job possibilities exist in equipment repair, education, research and development, and mobile services.
Radiologic Science Certification and Licensure
Currently, about 38 states license radiologic technologists. Most students who have graduated from an accredited program must pass an examination to become licensed. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists certifies radiologic technologists. To remain in good standing, you must complete 21 approved units of continuing education over a two-year period, because the technology changes so rapidly.
Many employers and states require a license or certification for nuclear medicine technologists. Students should check the requirements for each state in which they plan to work. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists and Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board provide certification. Nuclear medicine technologists must also meet minimum standards on administering radioactive drugs and the operation of radiation detection equipment.
For more information on a career in the radiologic science professions, contact:
- American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- American Society of Radiologic Technologists
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
- Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology
- Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board
- Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- Society of Nuclear Medicine Technologists