When it comes to the field of medical imaging, many people lump radiologists together with radiation therapists, radiologic technicians and radiologist assistants. However, one of these things is not like the others; radiologists are medical doctors, and radiation therapists, radiologic technicians and radiologist assistants are not.
The title “radiologist” is reserved for medical doctors who have been trained to diagnose and treat ailments with the help of medical imaging procedures; they are the ultimate imaging experts. To become a radiologist, you must attend medical school for four years, pass a licensing exam, do an internship for a year and complete four years of residency. After the residency, you may choose to do a fellowship, which is another one to two years of specialized training. Medical school gives doctors a broad overview of medicine; learning about a particular field takes place during the residency and fellowship periods. In addition to all of this training, radiologists must be board certified by either the American Board of Radiology or the American Osteopathic Board of Radiology.
As a radiologist, you will not be the doctor primarily dealing with the patient; radiologists usually only enter the scene when the doctor in charge asks for a consultation. You will help the doctor decide which medical imaging procedure to perform. Then, you will interpret the resulting medical images and give a diagnosis to the doctor. Some radiologists do more than just look at images; for example, radiation oncologists help treat cancer with radiation, and interventional radiologists aid in performing minimally invasive, image-guided surgery.
Radiologists can specialize in a variety of areas. For example, you may be interested in specializing in breast imaging, a subspecialty that includes mammography, breast biopsies, breast MRIs and breast ultrasounds. Cardiovascular radiologists use x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs and ultrasounds to look at the heart and blood vessels, and chest radiologists help perform procedures that require medical imaging such as lung biopsies and draining fluid from the chest or heart. Emergency radiologists look at medical images of conditions that require emergency attention, and pediatric radiologists specialize in dealing with children.
A radiation therapist, on the other hand, performs a completely different role. For starters, radiation therapists only deal with cancer. As a radiation therapist, you will be a part of a medical radiation oncology team. Your primary job will be to operate a machine called a linear accelerator. The most common procedure that you will perform with a linear accelerator is external beam therapy. In external beam therapy, cancer cells are bombarded with high-energy x-rays. The hope is that these x-rays will shrink and eliminate cancer cells. Sometimes, radiation therapy is the only treatment that the patient receives; other times, the treatment consists of a combination of radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
Radiation therapists are not doctors, and thus, you will not be allowed to interpret medical images or deliver results to patients. However, your duties will include helping your team create a treatment plan. Your contribution will be to use an x-ray machine or computer tomography scanner to create medical images and find the exact location of the tumor. These medical images will be passed on to the radiation oncologist. Once the oncologist develops the treatment plan, you will put it into action by explaining the treatment to the patient, positioning the patient and the linear accelerator correctly and operating the linear accelerator from another room. The radiation therapist is responsible for making sure the patient remains calm and does not experience any bad side effects during the treatment.
Radiation therapists need to be highly detailed individuals; one significant part of the job includes keeping exact records of patients’ treatments. Important things that you will need to record include the dose of radiation used in any particular treatment, the amount of radiation used in the overall treatment, what part of the body is being treated and how the patient is responding to treatment. Without these notes, the radiation oncologist will not be able to determine if the treatment is working or not.
Unlike a radiologist, who spends more than 12 years being educated and trained, a radiation therapist only needs an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy. Another way to become a radiation therapist is to have an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in radiography plus a certificate in radiation therapy. Classes you can expect to take include radiation therapy procedures, physics, anatomy, physiology, computer science and research methodology. It’s a good idea to get certified by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT); employers like hiring certified radiation therapists, and some states require you to be certified as a licensing requirement.