What is Radiology? An Ultimate Guide to Diagnostic Imaging

what is radiology diagnostic imaging radiologist

Each year, radiologists perform more than 300 million diagnostic imaging tests. 

Perhaps you're looking to join their ranks as a health care professional. Or maybe your doctor has ordered radiology services as part of your care. Either way, you need to know more about the field. 

What is radiology? What are the most common radiology exams and treatments? If you pursue a radiology career, what kind of training will you need?  And how much can you expect to make? 

Find answers to these questions and more in this radiologist guide. 

What Is Radiology? 

Radiology is a medical specialty that uses imaging to diagnose and treat conditions. Clinical doctors, including general practitioners, surgeons, and obstetricians, order radiology imaging as part of their care. 

The field of radiology includes two levels of expertise. Radiologic technicians are trained to use and maintain radiology equipment. When you go for a radiology exam, you'll most likely encounter a radiologic technician. This technician will perform the exam and capture the images for review. 

Radiologists are medical doctors that are trained to interpret those images. When your doctor shares the results from the exam, he or she will reference the radiologist's report. 

What Is Radiography? 

Radiography is a technique that radiologists use to produce X-ray images. X-rays use radiation waves to capture images of the bones, organs, and soft tissues. 

If you're considering a career as a radiologic technician, you might begin as a radiographer. In fact, most technicians begin in radiography

As a radiographer, you'll focus on generating X-ray images. However, you'll also gain experience with other tests in the field. For example, on any given day, you might help radiologists with fluoroscopic exams or ultrasounds as well. 

What Are the Different Kinds of Radiologic Images? 

Besides radiographs, the field of radiology produces several other types of radiologic images. These include diagnostic images that facilitate acute and preventative care. 

Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan 

Like radiography, computerized tomography (CT) scans use X-ray images. However, during a CT scan, a technician takes a series of X-rays at different angles. Computer technology then combines those images to provide a cross-sectional view inside the body. CT scans are often used to evaluate and monitor the size of internal organs, like the heart, liver, and lungs. 

CT scans likewise can reveal and allow for ongoing evaluation of abnormal masses. They are helpful, therefore, in cancer treatment. In addition, they are used to identify internal bleeding and other internal injuries in trauma victims. 

Patients preparing for a CT scan should expect to be positioned within a donut-shaped device for between 10-30 minutes. 

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 

Like CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) offers more detailed images than X-rays. MRIs produce detailed 3-D images. They are especially helpful for viewing the body's soft tissues. 

Orthopedic doctors will often order MRI tests to confirm the diagnosis of a tendon or ligament injury. Oncologists and neurologists also use MRI imaging to see inside the brain and spinal cord. 

During a traditional MRI exam, patients are slid into what is essential a tube-shaped magnet. Open MRIs have become increasingly common in recent years. They provide a good option for patients who are uncomfortable in enclosed spaces. 

An MRI exam typically takes between 15-90 minutes. 

Ultrasound 

As a diagnostic test, ultrasounds use sound waves to generate moving images of the body's internal organs. 

Obstetricians usually order two ultrasounds during a typical healthy pregnancy. These tests let the doctor see the developing fetus. Another common type of ultrasound is an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to show the beating heart. This test can help diagnose abnormalities in the heart valves or chambers. 

During an ultrasound, the technician, or sonographer, puts gel on a wand-like device called a transducer. The sonographer then runs the transducer over the targeted body part while watching and capturing moving images on a screen. 

An ultrasound usually takes 15-45 minutes. During this time, the patient lays on a bed or padded exam table. 

Mammogram 

A mammogram is a special X-ray exam of the breast tissue. Doctors use mammograms to identify potentially cancerous lumps in the breasts. Mammograms are, thus, considered to be an essential part of women's preventative care. 

Experts recommend that women aged 45-54 schedule yearly mammograms. Women who are older than 55 can maintain this schedule or switch to every two years. 

Contrast Imagery 

Two other types of radiologic images include fluoroscopy and nuclear medicine. These two types of imaging are similar in that both use contrast agents to produce clearer pictures, especially when abnormalities are suspected. 

Fluoroscopy captures a continuous X-ray "movie" of the affected body part as a contrast dye passes through it. Common fluoroscopy procedures include barium X-rays and cardiac catheterization. 

Like fluoroscopy, nuclear medicine uses contrast agents. Instead of dyes, however, nuclear medicine uses small amounts of radioactive chemicals, or tracers. The positron emission tomography (PET) scan is among the most common nuclear medicine imaging tests. The PET scan is often used to diagnose cancer and disorders of the brain and heart. 

What Kind of Training Do Jobs with Radiology Require? 

Because radiologists are medical doctors, their training involves medical school, an internship, and a residency program. They must also pass a licensing exam to be accepted into an internship and residency program. Before beginning their independent practice, finally, radiologists must pass additional exams to become board certified. 

Many radiologists also complete a one- or two-year fellowship program in a radiology specialty of their choice. 

Individuals considering a career as a radiologic technician can choose from a few paths. Options include a bachelor's or associate's degree program in radiology or a certificate program. Certificate programs generally take six months to a year to complete. Associate's degrees usually require two years, while bachelor's degrees require four. 

Regardless of their training path, radiologic technicians must pass a certification exam to become licensed. 

Both radiologists and radiologic technicians must also engage in continuing education. 

What Is the Typical Radiology Salary? 

You're pursuing a radiology career because you want to help people stay healthy. However, you also need to provide for yourself and your family. Whether you become a radiologist or a radiologic technician, you can expect a healthy income. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) combines radiology and radiography salary estimates. It puts the average radiologic technician salary at $62,280. 

Meanwhile, as a medical doctor, a radiologist can expect to make an average of $208,000 a year. 

Seeing Your Way Through the Field of Radiology 

Radiologists and radiologic technicians are truly essential workers. Radiological imaging enables clinical doctors to diagnose and treat a host of diseases and injuries. 

If you're seeking a career in the field and a family member asks, "What is radiology?," you're now equipped to answer their question. If you simply require the services of a radiologist, knowing what to expect can help you ease your mind as you prepare. 

In either case, though, two other questions remain. How will you stay healthy, and how will you keep your finances healthy? 

As you engage in the lifelong effort to answer these questions, always count on our blog for the best advice.