By Donna Olmstead
In North America, one in 10 people has some kind of diagnostic imaging procedure every year. These procedures are highly diverse, ranging from a chest X-ray that takes a static photograph, to a functional magnetic resonance image that helps researchers map the brain and analyze its firing patterns.
A severe shortage of radiologic technologists across North America has created career opportunities in all four practice areas of the field: radiography, sonography, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy. Radiographers produce images of the organs, bones, and vessels of the body. In addition to working as X-ray technologists, radiographers may specialize in specific techniques that require experience and education beyond the basic radiography program, such as bone densitometry, mammography, computed tomography, MRI, and cardiovascular-interventional technology. Sonographers use high frequency sound waves to create images of anatomy. Nuclear medicine technologists use radio-pharmaceuticals and special cameras to produce images of organs and to reveal their function. Radiation therapists administer highly focused forms of radiation to treat cancer and other diseases. A sub-specialization of medical radiation is medical dosimetry. Under the supervision of medical physicists, dosimetrists calculate and generate radiation dose distributions according to treatment plans developed by radiation oncologists.
Hospitals and other institutions are recruiting in all areas. The American Hospital Association, together with three other organizations, released a survey in January 2002 reporting a 15.3% vacancy rate for radiologic technologists – compared with a 13% rate for nurses and a 12.7% rate for pharmacists. This vacancy rate means that one in seven jobs for radiologic technologists cannot be filled. Furthermore, a full 21% of hospitals have a vacancy rate that is greater than 20%, meaning that at least one in five positions is vacant.
With scholarships and a variety of educational options, professional organizations like the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT), professional physicians groups, and colleges strive to make careers in radiologic sciences as accessible as possible. Medical imaging and radiation therapy technologies are expanding exponentially, so the careers and skill sets of radiologic technologists must also evolve rapidly. "It is possible that skills could be outdated before someone graduates from a program in the radiologic sciences. That's why we talk about the 'learning how to learn' skill set," says Kevin Powers, ASRT's education director. "It's important to remember that a new procedure is not unique, but related to something that they (technologists) already know." Beyond the intellectual and technical challenges, students wishing to specialize in newer areas, must gain experience on the equipment they hope to master.
A key to success is developing a personal portfolio of procedures and technical competencies. Working with some of the emerging technologies could require a geographical move. For example, positron emission tomography, which creates dynamic images of body functions and can help diagnose diseases, is not yet available everywhere. "Some technologies are hardware dependent," Powers explains. Students who want to be on the cutting edge of emerging technologies should assess which institutions have a culture that will provide them with the opportunities they seek.
Those who relish these kinds of challenges find their niche: "Radiation therapy isn't for everyone, but for someone who likes helping people, is good with detail, and is interested in technology, it is so rewarding," says Stephanie Eatmon, educational program director of the radiation therapy program at California State University, Long Beach.
A well-planned education is also crucial. There are many avenues available including four-year baccalaureate programs, two-year associate degree programs, and two-year certificate programs. Links to educational information can be found on ASRT's website and on the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists (CAMRT) website. Radiologic technology offers opportunities for either a first or a second career. Howard March spent the first 30 years of his career as a businessman but decided that he needed something more rewarding. "I made a comfortable salary and saved the company a lot of money, but I didn't really feel like I accomplished anything." Today, he is a bone densitometry technologist at a breast health clinic.
March is happy with the changes that he has made. "I counsel women about osteoporosis. Most of the women I work with are breast cancer survivors. We do the bone scan after their chemotherapy and then, under the direction of a physician, I share the results with them. I enjoy my job tremendously."