Career Information for HPAG Students: Diagnostic Imaging

One of the primary technological advances in medicine in the last quarter century is an improved ability to take clear pictures of bodily organs and processes. The medical images are obtained by using x-rays, radioactive substances, sound waves, or the body's natural magnetism.  Radiologists and other physicians use these images in conjunction with other tests and information to diagnose a variety of diseases and conditions including heart disease and cancer.

The development of these imaging techniques has created a need for a wide variety of medical personnel to take the images, to ensure that high quality images are taken, and to work with patients in the imaging process. A small sample of these positions is described below, but students who are interested in careers in imaging are encouraged to investigate the multitude of careers in this area.

Radiologic technologists take x-rays (using radiation) and inject nonradioactive substances into patients' blood streams in order to produce films of parts of the human body for use in diagnosing medical problems. They prepare patients by explaining the procedures, ensure that the patient does not have any articles on the body that would impair the images, position patients for the images, take the images, and ensure that the images are of high quality.

In addition there are several specialty areas within radiologic technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized technology (CT). MRI Technologists use giant magnets, radio waves, and computers, rather than radiation, to create images. CT Technologists use an x-ray sensing device, which rotates around the body, and a computer to take cross-sectional pictures of the inside of the body.  

Nuclear Medicine Technologists use radionuclides (unstable atoms that spontaneously emit radioactivity) to diagnose disease. Radionuclides are purified and compounded to form radiopharmaceuticals to help diagnose and to treat patients. Nuclear medicine technologists explain test procedures to patients, prepare a dosage of the radiopharmaceutical and administer it to the patient, position the patient and operate a gamma camera that takes pictures of the inside of the body, and process the images on a computer.

Diagnostic medical sonographers (also called ultrasonographers) use sound waves to produce images of the inside of the body. Many people are familiar with sonography as a technique to view the fetus in the womb, but it has many other applications as well.  Sonographers explain test procedures to the patient, use equipment that directs nonionizing, high frequency sound waves into areas of the patient's body, and takes images of the inside of the body.

The Work Setting: About 1/2 of radiologic technologists and sonographers and about 2/3 of nuclear medicine technologists work in hospitals. Others work in medical clinics, physician offices, medical diagnostic laboratories, and diagnostic imaging centers.  Some technologists later enter other health care fields such as software applications support, pharmaceutical sales, management, and education.
Entry Into Field: Many states require licensure for radiologic technology and nuclear medicine, but licensure requirements vary from state to state. No state currently requires licensure for sonography. Registration or certification is offered by the professional association in each field, and many employers will hire only a registered or certified technologist.

Education: Formal training in radiography ranges from 1 to 4 years in length and leads to a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor's degree. Two-year associate degree programs are most common. Educational requirements in nuclear medicine and sonography are similar. Most programs are available in hospitals, colleges, and universities. There are almost 600 radiography programs, almost 100 nuclear medicine programs, and more than 100 sonography programs in the United States.

Courses in radiography programs generally include physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, anatomy and physiology, patient care procedures, principles of imaging, radiation safety, medical terminology, positioning of patients, medical ethics, radiobiology, and pathology.  Nuclear medicine programs also require courses in radiopharmaceuticals and computer applications.

The Career: In 2004, the median salary for radiologic technologists was $43,000; for nuclear medicine technologists - $56,000; and for sonographers - $53,000. 

Job Outlook:  Employment of radiologic technologists, nuclear medicine technologists, and sonographers is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations in the next 10 years.

Helpful Web Sites:

Radiologic technology:   
Department of Labor
Radiology Information