When considering a career in the field of medical imaging, it is important to get clear on the different job titles you’ll encounter. One common mistake people make is to think that radiologists and radiologist assistants perform basically the same job. These people may believe that radiologist assistants are just radiologists-in-training and that, eventually, the assistants will be promoted and become radiologists. However, that is not correct.
A radiologist is medical doctor. Like other medical doctors, radiologists have to go through four years of medical school, get licensed and complete a residency of at least four years. All medical students receive a broad range of medical education in medical school, and during their residency, they are trained in a specific medical field. In addition, many doctors complete a fellowship, which is specialized training that takes one to two more years. When you take into account the fact that a four year undergraduate degree is required to get into medical school, many doctors have had more than 12 years of training.
Most doctors specialize in particular areas. For example, cardiologists are trained to diagnose and treat heart problems, and neurologists are trained to diagnose and treat disorders of the nervous system. Radiologists are trained to diagnose and treat issues through the use of medical imaging. A primary care physician is probably not a radiologist; most of the time, radiologists only get involved when a doctor refers their patient over to the radiology department or has them undergo medical imaging. As a radiologist, you would primarily function as an expert consultant; you would work with the doctor to select the medical imaging procedure that is right for the patient. You would interpret the results and send the patient back for more tests if necessary. In addition to diagnosing, radiologists may be called upon to help treat the patient. Radiation oncologists use radiation to combat cancer, and interventional radiologists participate in minimally invasive image-guided surgery. Radiologists are rarely involved with the creation of the medical images; that task usually falls to a radiologic technologist.
Radiologist assistants, on the other hand, are not medical doctors. The American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT) defines a radiologist assistant as “an advanced-level radiologic technologist who works under the supervision of a radiologist to enhance patient care by assisting the radiologist in the diagnostic imaging environment.” Radiologist assistants do not go through nearly as much schooling and training as radiologists do; the minimum degree requirement for a radiologist assistant is a bachelor’s degree.
As a radiologist assistant, your duties would include explaining procedures to patients; obtaining patients’ consent and medical histories; administering substances used in the medical imaging process such as radiopharmaceuticals and contrast agents; evaluating patients before, during and after medical imaging procedures; helping radiologists perform invasive procedures; acting as a liaison between the radiologist and referring doctor; and placing feeding tubes in patients. Under a radiologist’s direct supervision, you would be able to perform fluoroscopes and modify certain imaging procedures. Radiologist assistants and other radiologic technicians are never allowed to diagnose patients. What they are allowed to do is make preliminary observations and recommendations to radiologists and pass along information from a radiologist to another doctor.
The radiologist assistant job title is a recent development; prior to 2002, the job did not exist. The American College of Radiology (ACR) and the ASRT decided to create this new position due to workplace shortages of radiologists and radiologic technologists. Since there weren’t enough radiologists and radiologic technologists, hospitals and doctor’s offices started hiring physician assistants and nurse practitioners and training them in radiology. The ACR and ASRT felt that creating the position of radiologist assistant would help reduce radiologists’ workloads and allow them to spend their time more productively. In addition, since radiologist assistants are advanced-level radiologic technologists, these organizations felt that creating this new position and adding a new level of professional advancement would make becoming a radiologic technologist a more attractive career choice.
If you’re looking to work in a field that has job security and high salaries, then definitely consider becoming a radiologist assistant. Since 1998, there have been more jobs available than radiologists and radiologic technologists to fill them, and it has only gotten worse over time. Because the radiologist assistant position is so new, there are only around ten training programs in the United States, but more programs are being started each year. Radiologist assistant training programs you may want to consider checking out include those at the