What is a Radiologist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A radiologist is a medical professional who interprets medical images like MRIs, X-rays, CT scans, and ultrasounds. He or she may also use radioactive materials for the purpose of medical imaging, while another related medical specialty focuses on the use of radiation to treat conditions such as cancer.

Radiologists review X-rays.
Radiologists review X-rays.

In the sense of using diagnostic images, someone in this position knows how to operate equipment such as MRI and X-ray machines, and how to interpret the images which this equipment generates. Generally, a radiology technician performs the actual imaging, turning the results over to the radiologist, although in a small hospital or clinic, a radiologist may perform both tasks. Sometimes, patients must ingest various substances such as barium for a specific imaging study, and radiologists may supervise this proceeding.

An MRI scan of the brain. A radiologist interprets these and other medical images.
An MRI scan of the brain. A radiologist interprets these and other medical images.

A radiologist can also inject radioactive tracers into a patient so that images can be taken to study things like the flow of blood and the nervous system. This is known as nuclear medicine, in a reference to the radioactive materials which are used. Nuclear medicine can be used to screen for a wide range of conditions, and to get a general idea of physical health and functionality in patients.

A radiologist may perform MRI scans.
A radiologist may perform MRI scans.

After acquiring and interpreting images, a radiologist discusses the situation with the patient's doctor. The doctor decides what action to take in the patient's case, although the radiologist's advice may be considered. In a clinic where tests are performed by a technician, a radiologist may never actually interact with the physical patient, which is considered one of the downsides this career.

A Radiologist interprets X-rays.
A Radiologist interprets X-rays.

Radiologists who prefer to be more hands-on may specialize in interventional radiology, which involves minor medical procedures conducted with the guidance of radiology equipment. A familiar example of interventional radiology is an amniocentesis, in which a needle is carefully inserted into a pregnant mother's amniotic sac to withdraw fluid for further study; this test is carried out with the assistance of an ultrasound machine to make sure that the needle is in the right place.

Therapeutic radiologists are trained in the use of radioactive agents in disease treatment. Generally, they specialize in a separate branch of medicine, radiation oncology, in which they learn about cancers and their treatments along with the use of radioactive agents.

The radiologist can often view the MRI images in real time from the observation room.
The radiologist can often view the MRI images in real time from the observation room.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon335309

It is important also to note that radiologists are specialist physicians who actually have more training than the average doctor you would usually see for most medical care. Radiologists undergo more years of training than family practitioners or general surgeons or OB/GYN doctors.

lluviaporos

@Ana1234 - It might have a reputation for being a fairly easy job, but I have heard there is a major downside. No matter how much they protect themselves, radiologists, particularly the ones who do the imaging themselves, are often exposed to greater amounts of radiation than the general population.

Radiologist training is supposed to cover this kind of thing, but I think it's just an unfortunate fact of the job. And radiation can do all kinds of unfortunate things to a person, including causing infertility and, of course, cancer, so unless you are prepared to be absolutely precise every single day of your job, I wouldn't go into this career no matter how well paid it's supposed to be.

Ana1234

@bobcat60 - I think that's true of a lot of places, but people should still make sure that's true of where ever they want to work before they dash off into medical school. They should also make sure the rest of their high school doesn't have the same idea, because I think that radiologist as a career has started to get a reputation for being cushy and well paid, compared to say, nursing or even being a doctor. It's an expensive line of study to take, so make sure it will be worth it in the end.

bobcat60

Radiologist jobs are growing faster than average. Not only are radiologists employed by hospitals, but increasingly by doctor's offices and diagnostic clinics. Those with knowledge in more than one imaging technique are given better opportunities usually.

anon16683

You did not mention that radiologists are specialized physicians (medical doctors). After obtaining a college degree, one goes to medical school for 4 years and gets an MD degree. This is followed by a year of internship in a hospital, followed by 4 years of specialty training as a radiology resident. About half of US radiologists then do an additional year or two of subspecialty fellowship training. -- Steven Adler, MD, Radiologist since 1984.

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