Going to a specialist can be nerve racking. If you’ve had the same primary care physician for years, visiting a specialist yanks you from your comfort zone. Often it necessitates a trip to an unfamiliar medical center. Everything from looking for parking to wandering foreign hallways to checking in with the receptionist can be anxiety provoking. Once you arrive at your destination, you’re inundated with questions from multiple people.
If your general practitioner sent you for a cancer screening involving imaging equipment, your appointment is likely with a radiologist. They also play a role in diagnosing everything from torn muscles and broken bones to blocked arteries and traumas. They can even lend their expertise to a pregnancy screening or determining if your child has ingested a foreign object. Yet no matter the reason for your appointment with a radiologist, numerous other people will talk to you, prep you, and work the machinery. Who are they –– what are the different roles in radiology?
Rise of the Radiologist
In 1895, Professor Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with a cathode ray generator. It was a happy accident when he realized the device allowed him to see bones through skin after its rays came into contact with a vacuum tube. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were––he called them X-Rays. William Coolidge later developed a tube that standardized the procedure. Today getting an X-Ray takes seconds––in its early days it took 11 minutes and considerably more radiation to create a usable picture of someone’s bones. Sonar, a benefit of World War II’s battles at sea, was repurposed in the 1960s as the “ultrasound machine.” This let doctors look for tumors. The 1970s saw the adoption of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) which creates a collage of X-Rays.
A radiologist is a medical doctor; the radiologist is a modern speciality intricately connected to the many advancements in imaging technology. Besides X-Rays, ultrasound, MRIs and CT scans, 21st century radiologists might also employ positron emission tomography (PET) and fusion imaging. Because medical imaging equipment often uses radiation, the radiologist has to have a thorough understanding of its effects and dangers. For instance, since CT scans can deliver 300 times more radiation than a single X-Ray some worry about the slight cancer risk. Besides diagnosing, some doctors who specialize in oncology use radiation for cancer treatment. Still, radiology is generally more focused on discovering rather than treating disease.
Other Roles in Radiology
Just as doctors have specialities, so do nurses. A radiology nurse frequently serves as a patient’s primary point of contact during an imaging procedure. If you are scheduled to see a radiologist, it is often the radiology nurse who will answer your questions as they prep you. The nurse is also responsible for everything from setting up your IV to monitoring you after the procedure.
A radiologic technologist earns a two-year associate’s degree as qualification to operate the medical imaging equipment (although many hold four-year degrees). Also called radiographers, they can interpret results under the radiologist’s supervision. This job often serves as an entry into the medical field––many radiologic technologists advance through the speciality as they gain education and experience. When you are about to be scanned, you can often look through a window and see them working in another room. A similar career is held by radiology technicians who, after earning a two-year degree, focus on producing X-Rays.
Many radiology technicians progress to radiology assistants following a four-year degree and certification. They are usually the person who performs the actual exam, assisting with the patient’s preparation, counseling them, and offering information about the results under the doctor’s supervision.
Today, the radiologist does far more than just review images. They often serve as gatekeepers––determining if a patient needs further tests or admission to a hospital. Understanding the radiologist’s role in your health care is important because their opinion will often affect your next steps.
Written by John Bankston