Guide to Becoming an MRI Technician
MRI technicians use cutting-edge technology to create high-definition, three-dimensional pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. These images are among the most powerful diagnostic tools available and are particularly useful for studying the brain, heart and muscles as well as certain kinds of cancers. A skillful MRI tech produces high resolution images that allow physicians to diagnose with pinpoint accuracy.
MRI scanners create powerful magnetic fields that line up certain atomic nuclei within the body. When stimulated by radio waves, these nuclei produce rotating magnetic fields that can be converted into images. Technicians have a nuanced understanding of the physics behind this process that allows them to create pictures with excellent contrast and clarity. They also rely on their expertise in human anatomy to position the patient and target the body structures to be studied.
Unlike X-ray radiography, MRI does not produce ionizing radiation nor damage vulnerable DNA and cells. However, since an MRI scanner is essentially a giant high-powered magnet, technicians must adhere to strict safety procedures when working with their scanner and perform routine maintenance to keep it in peak condition.
In addition to providing scientific and technical expertise, these professionals work closely with patients. While open MRI machines are becoming more common, most models still require patients to lie in a narrow tube for up to 40 minutes, which leads to anxiety, claustrophobia or even panic for some patients. The support of a calm and caring technician makes all the difference in the patient's experience. Techs also ensure that patients follow safety procedures and may administer contrast agents by mouth or injection to enhance the quality of the images.
Once a study is complete, the technician consults with a radiologist to examine the images, answer questions and plan additional studies as needed. The radiologist makes the diagnosis and communicates it to the patient's physician. As vital players on the health care team, MRI techs take great pride in producing the high-quality images physicians need to diagnose and treat with confidence and accuracy.
MRI technicians are usually found in the imaging departments of hospitals and outpatient diagnostic centers. A growing number of physicians’ offices also employ these professionals. Most techs work full time, and their schedules may include overnight, weekend and holiday shifts.
At minimum, becoming an MRI tech requires completion of an associate's degree in radiologic technology or a related field, followed by 1-2 years of additional study in an MRI technology certificate program. When enrolling, be sure to choose an institution accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology or the Commission on Accreditation of the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists.
MRI certificate programs include extensive hands-on training in a variety of clinical settings. Newly hired technicians complete a period of on-the-job training during which they shadow an experienced mentor.
Licensing and/or Certification
Most states mandate licensure of MRI techs. Requirements vary, but usually include graduation from an accredited program and passage of a knowledge exam.
National certification is available through the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists. MRI techs must engage in regular continuing education in order to maintain their credentials.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
MRI tech jobs involve substantial physical activity and require good health and stamina. These professionals may need to lift or assist patients who are moving from gurneys and wheelchairs onto the scanner table or position body parts or pieces of equipment. Techs spend many hours on their feet each shift.
Attention to detail is also an asset. MRI technicians need to follow physician instructions meticulously in order to obtain clear, useful images. Empathy and communication skills help these professionals gain the cooperation of patients who are in pain or experiencing claustrophobia.
Opportunities for Advancement
Skilled MRI techs may have opportunities to specialize in an area of interest such as pediatrics, cardiac, neurological or intraoperative imaging. Some go back to school to train as nurses or nuclear medicine technologists. Supervisory or managerial roles are also options for experienced MRI professionals.
According to the US Department of Labor, radiologic technologists (including MRI technicians) earned a median annual wage of $54,340 in 2010. The middle 80% of techs surveyed earned between $36,510 and $76,850. Salaries tend to be highest in large metropolitan areas.
Hospitals and diagnostic centers are expected to remain the largest employers of MRI techs. However, as technology advances and smaller, more portable scanners become commercially available, opportunities may increase at physicians' offices. Employment of radiologic technologists is expected to grow by 28% between 2010 and 2020, due largely to the aging population’s increased need for health care services.