Becoming a Radiology Technician
Radiology technicians produce clear and accurate images of the body that enable physicians to diagnose and treat medical conditions that would otherwise be difficult to document. Technicians operate sophisticated equipment that includes X-ray, mammography, computerized axial tomography (CAT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scan devices. By guiding patients through each step of their medical imaging procedures, these specialists ensure the production of high quality images. They also play a pivotal role in assuaging the anxieties of patients who may be concerned about the procedure or their condition.
Technicians prepare patients by explaining each step of the medical imaging process. After instructing patients to remove jewelry, clothing or other items that could interfere with the equipment, they position them correctly and protect them from overexposure, for example by covering parts of the body not being filmed with lead aprons. Occasionally they inject barium- and iodine-based contrast agents to improve image quality. After focusing the equipment and capturing the images on digital file or film, radiology technicians review the results of their work with radiologists, and take additional views when necessary. A radiology technician may also be responsible for updating patient records and maintaining the imaging equipment itself.
Radiologic technologists are radiology technicians who have progressed through continued education and training or those who acquired additional training and education before entering the field. Many radiology technologists will specialize in a particular diagnostic test, such as mammography, and those with more than one specialty are considered highly desirable by employers. Regardless of the level of training—technician or technologist—or specialization, the precision work of these professionals enables physicians to diagnose and treat a wide variety of health concerns with accuracy and confidence.
Radiology technicians work in hospitals, clinics, imaging centers, private physician offices or even mobile imaging service centers. While hospitals remain the leading job providers, they also tend to be much busier than outpatient settings. A radiology technician typically works a standard 40-hour week, but some positions require on-call night or weekend work.
Three options exist for pursuing a career as a radiology tech: a certificate program that takes one to two years, a two-year associate’s degree, or a four-year bachelor’s degree. (A certificate program is especially beneficial for an individual with significant experience in radiology technology or who is shifting medical fields. This program typically lasts for 21 to 24 months.)
Certificate programs are available through traditional or online courses, community colleges, technical schools, and some hospitals. (Hospital programs will usually have a condition of employment in order to gain the necessary training.) These institutions often require an intensive coursework schedule. Prerequisites to radiology programs may include previous medical experience and/or medical terminology, office technology or ethics coursework. The foundation of radiology education usually includes anatomy, chemistry, biology, radiology theory, mathematics and patient safety courses. (Note: Be sure to confirm the accreditation of the institution you plan to attend.)
A two-year associate’s degree is the most popular path for aspiring radiology techs at this time. Programs are offered at almost all accredited community colleges and private (for-profit) institutions.
Some universities offer a bachelor’s degree in Radiologic Technology. Admission to one of these programs comes with its own criteria specific to the school. Common coursework includes radiation physics, anatomy, pathology and radiobiology.
Most schools require a portion of the curriculum to be hands-on to give students valuable patient contact experience. Many radiologic technology programs are now also requiring coding or medical office courses, as some jobs will require those skills to be utilized in practice.
The Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT) is the official accrediting body for radiography training programs. It is very important to take a JRCERT-accredited training program because it will later qualify you for certification. To find out if a school is accredited by JRCERT, go the committee’s official website.
Specialization includes mammography, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), musculoskeletal, neuroradiology, cellular imaging, medical sonography and medical imaging. Specialization requires additional training and ARRT certification in the selected specialty.
Licensing and/or Certification
Certification follows radiation technology training and is awarded by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) after passing the certification exam. To maintain ARRT-certified status, 24 hours of continuing education every two years is required.
Most states require radiology technicians to secure a license. Requirements differ in each state. Some states use ARRT exams for licensing, but individuals should contact the relevant state’s health board for more information.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Good communication skills, a focus on detail, and careful attention to procedure are essential to success as a radiology technician. Physical strength is needed to position patients, and at times, to lift them onto examination tables. As with health care professionals in general, empathy, cultural sensitivity, and high ethical standards are necessary as well.
Opportunities for Advancement
As noted above, radiologist technicians are frequently "technologists-in-training." A technologist candidate is eligible to seek certification after meeting experience and training requirements obtained as a technician. Certified radiology technologist may also be asked to train or manage entry-level technicians.
The current median annual wage for radiologic technologists with AA degrees is $54,340, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries range from $42,000 to $74,000 with medical and diagnostic laboratories paying the highest levels of compensation and physicians’ offices the lowest. Individuals with certification to handle more equipment and machines are paid much more generously than those who do not have additional training and experience. Radiology tech salaries also vary depending on geographical location and employer type. For example, radiology tech jobs in metropolitan areas and medical diagnostic laboratories often pay higher salaries as opposed to radiology tech jobs in rural areas and physician's offices.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for radiology technologists will rise faster than average at 28% through 2020.