How to Become an X-Ray Technician

Overview

By Michael Sapko, M.D.
A technician operating the x-ray machinery

X-ray technicians (also known as X-ray technologists or radiologic technologists) use cutting-edge imaging methods to visualize the inside of the human body. The pictures they create help physicians to diagnose and treat illnesses or injuries with great accuracy. Technicians have a unique opportunity to work with some of the most exciting and groundbreaking medical machinery available. They also get the satisfaction of assisting and supporting patients, including those who are nervous or in pain.

When a patient arrives for an imaging study, the technician takes a brief medical history, explains what to expect and answers the person’s questions. Next the patient is positioned on the equipment and shielded against ionizing radiation. The technician then performs the required studies while adhering closely to the physician’s written orders. In some cases, the technician works with a physician called a radiologist to analyze the images and determine whether additional tests are necessary.

X-ray technicians work with a wide variety of imaging technologies, including:

  • Traditional X-ray machines
  • Computerized axial tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Fluoroscopy
  • Film and digital mammography

Some X-ray technicians are generalists while others specialize in a particular type of machine or clinical area (such as breast imaging). Because technology advances quickly, there is always something new to learn, and technicians continuously upgrade and enhance their skills through continuing education.

In addition to operating imaging equipment, X-ray technicians are responsible for basic maintenance and upkeep of the machines. They also keep detailed records of each procedure.

Work Environment

Until a few years ago, almost all X-ray technicians worked in hospitals. However, many health systems now offer MRI, mammography and other imaging services on an outpatient basis. Today, over a third of technicians work in physician offices and specialized diagnostic centers.

Most X-ray technicians work full time. In facilities that provide round-the-clock care, their shifts most likely include some evenings, weekends and holidays. Technicians in outpatient settings are more likely to work regular business hours.

Some types of imaging machines emit small amounts of ionizing radiation. To minimize exposure risks, technicians must adhere closely to safety procedures and use shielding and protective clothing when appropriate.

Requirements

Education

Some certificate programs in X-ray technology last only six months. However, beginning in 2015, technicians must hold an associate’s degree from an accredited institution in order to be eligible for national certification through The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

Training programs in X-ray technology include courses in anatomy, biology and physics. Students take an in-depth look at the complex interactions between radiation and living tissue. Some programs also cover phlebotomy and intravenous drug administration. Most X-ray technicians complete both classroom and practical training.

Training

To be eligible for national certification, candidates must demonstrate proficiency in a number of clinical procedures within three years of earning an associate’s degree. (They are allowed five years if they graduate before the end of 2012.) These skills may be developed within a certificate or degree program or through on-the-job training.

Licensing and/or Certification

Licensure of X-ray technicians is mandatory in most (but not all) states. Candidates must meet educational requirements and pass a certification exam. Most states waive the testing requirement for technicians who are ARRT certified.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Medical imaging is far more complicated than “taking pictures.” Obtaining images of high diagnostic quality requires precise attention to detail. X-ray technicians must therefore follow physicians’ written orders meticulously. Because technicians are on their feet for long periods, the job requires a high level of fitness and stamina. Finally, technicians should enjoy hands-on work with complex machinery and be able to troubleshoot minor equipment problems.

Opportunities for Advancement

Experienced X-ray technicians can expect salary increases and greater flexibility in scheduling and shift selection. Over time and with experience, radiologic technicians will use more sophisticated imaging techniques and may specialize in a clinical area of interest such as MRI or cardiac imaging.

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Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for radiologic technicians was $54,340 in May 2010—much higher than the median salary for all health technology occupations. The middle eighty percent of radiologic technicians earned between $36,000 and $76,000 annually. Earnings vary across geographic areas and are generally highest where there is a shortage of healthcare workers.

Job Outlook

Employment of radiologic technologists is expected to increase by 28% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered faster than the average for all occupations.

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