Diagnostic Imaging Science Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a diagnostic imaging science career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a diagnostic imaging technician is right for you.
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A Career in Diagnostic Imaging Science: Pros and Cons

Diagnostic imaging technicians and technologists operate medical imaging equipment in clinical settings. Find out the pros and cons of a career in diagnostic imaging to see if it's right for you.

Pros of a Diagnostic Imaging Science Career
Relatively high average salaries (ranging from around $55,000-$73,000 per year, depending on specialty)*
Healthcare field has rapid job growth (according to the most recent statistics, different specialties are estimated at 21%-46% between 2012-2022)*
Entry-level positions usually require an associate's degree or less*
Ability to specialize in a particular type of imaging equipment or area of the body*
Opportunities in a variety of clinical settings (hospitals, doctors' offices, outpatient facilities, diagnostic centers, etc.)*

Cons of a Diagnostic Imaging Science Career
Usually requires professional licensing and certification*
Continuing education is required*
Can be physically demanding*
Work environment hazards (exposure to radiation and infectious diseases)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Career Options and Job Descriptions

Because medical imaging can be used to detect, diagnose and treat a wide array of diseases and illnesses, technicians and technologists can specialize in a particular type of medical imaging equipment (x-ray, MRI, PET or CT scan, ultrasound, etc.) or a specific clinical discipline. Radiologic technicians can often operate several of the types of equipment listed above. Sonographers use ultrasound equipment to produce images of internal organs or structures and often specialize in specific areas of human anatomy, including the cardiovascular or musculoskeletal systems, the abdomen or the brain. Meanwhile, nuclear medicine technicians and technologists give patients radioactive medications to show abnormal tissues in images created on brain- or body-scanning machines.

Whatever their specialty, diagnostic imaging techs prepare patients for examination and treatment by explaining procedures, taking vital signs and preparing medical records. They also carefully position patients for imaging, sometimes transferring a patient from a wheelchair or hospital bed for the procedure. After creating an image or scan, diagnostic imaging techs record results and give preliminary findings to doctors for further review.

Salary Info

Although there are many different types of diagnostic imaging techs, and average yearly salaries vary according to specialty and employer, most of these professionals are well-compensated for their knowledge and technical expertise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 2014 salary figures for each of the career paths listed above.

On average, cardiovascular techs earned around $55,000 per year, with most salaries (the 10th-90th percentile) between $28,000 and $85,000. The mean annual salary for radiology techs was about $57,000, and most earners took home between $37,000 and $80,000 per year. Slightly higher average salaries went to sonographers (about $68,000 per year) and nuclear medicine techs (around $73,000 per year), with top earners in those professions bringing home salaries exceeding $96,000 (www.bls.gov).

Career Outlook

The expansion of the healthcare industry, due in part to accommodate the needs of an aging population, will drive job growth for all diagnostic imaging careers. While most diagnostic imaging techs are currently employed by hospitals, the BLS reported that outpatient clinics, diagnostic centers, physicians' offices, laboratories and other clinical settings will offer additional opportunities.

The BLS predicted 20% job growth for nuclear medicine techs between 2012 and 2022, but noted that this is a niche occupation with a relatively small number of positions. The BLS projected 21% growth for radiology techs and 30% for cardiovascular techs for the same decade. The best career outlook is for sonographers, with projected job growth of 46% for the 2010-2020 decade; the BLS attributes this in part to patient preference, since these procedures are not invasive and do not use radiation.

What Are the Requirements?

For all types of diagnostic imaging tech careers, employers usually prefer candidates who have earned an associate's degree from an accredited program in an appropriate specialty. Other options range from certificate programs to a bachelor's degree. Medical diagnostic imaging education programs provide a background in anatomy, medical terminology and relevant concepts in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Additionally, there is often a clinical component for hands-on experience to reinforce the technical concepts learned in the classroom.

Depending on the specialty, education and training programs may prepare students for professional certification or state licensing, either (or both) of which may be required for employment. After completing an accredited degree program, an individual typically must pass an exam to become licensed or certified; credential requirements vary from state to state.

Career Skills

If you're thinking about a career in diagnostic imaging, it will be helpful for you to develop your written and verbal communications skills so you can provide instructions and reassurance to scared or ill patients, take direction from healthcare practitioners, record medical information and interact with all kinds of people. The field also requires energy, the physical strength to move patients and the manual dexterity to adjust instruments with precision. You'll need the technical skills to operate a range of machinery and instruments, using knowledge of science, math and computers to help you operate imaging equipment with accuracy.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers typically want applicants who are knowledgeable in the use of more than one kind of imaging equipment, and who have at least a year or two of work experience in medical diagnostic imaging. Additionally, some employers also prefer or require CPR or lifesaving certifications. The following are a few profiles from real jobs posted on CareerBuilder.com in May 2012:

  • A medical facility in Nashville wanted a state-registered radiologic technologist to perform x-ray and radiographic procedures, including patient preparation and recording of medical information for doctor review. Candidates were expected to have a 2-year degree and at least five years of experience.
  • A Phoenix hospital looked for an ultrasound diagnostic tech to complete both general ultrasound and vascular ultrasound tasks. The employer wanted candidates with more than one ARDMS subspecialty registration and two years of prior experience.
  • Another Nashville medical facility advertised for a sonographer to work in the obstetrics and perinatal practice. The employer expected at least six months of previous obstetrics experience, CPR certification and ARDMS certification (or eligibility).

How to Maximize Your Skills

Get Certified

It can be advantageous to be certified or registered in more than one diagnostic imaging specialty, since this can increase your employment options. A variety of certification and registration options exist for diagnostic imaging techs. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers exams in several areas of diagnostic imaging, including MRI, CT, radiology, nuclear medicine and sonography (www.arrt.org). Through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), sonographers can complete specialty exams in their chosen area, such as obstetrics and gynecology or vascular technology (www.ardms.org). Specialized exams for nuclear medicine techs are available through the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB), with tests in nuclear cardiology (NCT) and positron emission tomography (PET) as well as general certification (www.nmtcb.org).

Continue Your Education

Although most diagnostic imaging careers require you to have an associate's degree, it is also important for you to continue your education and stay updated on technological changes and advancements in the field, as well as maintain licenses and certifications. Additional coursework, on-the-job training and one-year certificate programs are all options that can help you stay current and develop your skills. You may also choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in your chosen field.

Alternative Careers

Medical Assistant

If you know you want to pursue a career in the healthcare industry but you're unsure what area you want to focus on, a career as a medical assistant might be a suitable first step into the field. The job duties of medical assistants may include administrative and office work, such as maintaining medical records and completing patient registration; but also includes a number of clinical tasks, such as taking fluid or tissue samples, checking vital signs, preparing exam rooms and administering basic patient care. O*Net OnLine reported 41% of medical assistants had a high school education in 2011, while 37% had taken some college courses (www.onetonline.org). Though average salaries are relatively low (around $30,000 in 2011), the BLS predicted job growth of 31% between 2010 and 2020, which makes this career an attractive option for people just starting out in the medical field.

Medical Equipment Repairer

If you want to work with diagnostic imaging equipment but aren't interested in direct patient care, you might consider becoming a medical equipment repairer. Some repair technicians work in a single hospital or clinical facility, while others travel from one medical center to the next to repair machines and provide maintenance as needed. An associate's degree in biomedical equipment technology or engineering, along with a few months of on-the-job training, can be sufficient preparation for this career. You'll also need to understand the science and mechanics of how the equipment works. The BLS reported an average salary around $47,000 per year in 2011, and predicted job growth of 31% through the decade ending in 2020.

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