What is a Radiologist?

Technological advancements have discovered more uses for medical imaging and techniques that are less invasive and more diagnostically accurate. Medical images may be obtained with X-rays, CT scans or radiographs, nuclear medicine (involving radioactive substances), magnetism (MRI), or ultrasound.

Radiologists are physicians specifically trained in interpreting these medical images. They may act as consultants to other physicians who are caring for patients, or as primary doctors.

What does a Radiologist do?

Radiologists specialize in obtaining and interpreting images for specific parts of the body. They can specialize in either diagnostic radiology, vascular and interventional radiology, or radiation oncology and can also become certified in a variety of subspecialties.

A radiologist interpreting a medical image.

Although radiologists are physicians, they typically only interact with other physicians, and not with patients. For example, when general practitioners need more clarity regarding their patient's medical issues, they often order medical imaging to be taken (an X-ray, MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound). Once the results are in, they will consult directly with the radiologist.

The results that come back from the radiologist will determine the course of a patient's therapy. Even though a radiologist doesn't get a lot of patient recognition and gratitude for their work, they do get a lot of satisfaction in knowing that what they do makes a big difference in people's lives everyday.

Various Specialties and Subspecialties within Radiology

Diagnostic Radiologist
In order to diagnose and treat disease, a diagnostic radiologist will obtain and interpret medical images by using X-rays, CT scans, radiograph, fluoroscopy, MRIs, ultrasound, electromagnetic radiation, and radionuclides. A radiologist can connect medical images to other examinations/tests a patient is getting done, can recommend further treatments, and can inform the patient's primary physician with relevant information.

Vascular and Interventional Radiologist
A vascular and interventional radiologist can diagnose and treat benign and malignant conditions of the abdomen, pelvis, and thorax with imaging and image-guided minimally invasive procedures. Radiologic imaging technologies that they use may include fluoroscopy, digital radiography, CT scan, sonography, and MRI. Therapies and treatments can include angioplasty, stent placement, ablation, embolization, biliary and genitourinary drainages, abscess drainages, and thrombolysis. Interventional radiologists diagnose and treat their patients using the least invasive techniques available (these techniques amount to less risk, less pain, and less recovery time compared to open surgery).

Radiation Oncologist
A radiation oncologist is trained in the use of radiation therapy (radiotherapy) to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of cancer, and to treat malignant and some benign diseases. They may also use CT scans, MRIs, ultrasound, and hyperthermia to aid in treatment planning, as well as order tests, images, consult with other physicians, and prescribe medication. After treatment, radiation oncologists will evaluate the patient’s response to treatment and oversee the future care of the patient.

Subspecialties include:

A neuroradiologist is trained to diagnose and treat disorders and abnormalities of the brain, spine, and head and neck (this also includes the sinuses, spinal cord, and the central nervous system). They are able to interpret X-rays, angiography, myelography, MRIs, and CT scans which can help to diagnose strokes, tumors, genetic conditions, aneurysms, Alzheimer's disease, aging and degenerative diseases, cancer, seizure disorders, cerebrovascular diseases, and trauma. Neuroradiologists can perform minimally invasive treatments for disorders such as brain aneurysms, arteriovenous malformations, and compression fractures of the spine.

Pediatric Radiologist
A pediatric radiologist will diagnose, care, and manage congenital abnormalities, diseases specifically related to infants and children, and diseases that begin in childhood and can cause impairments in adulthood. They will use imaging and interventional procedures such as X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, and nuclear medicine, interpret the results of the tests, and make an appropriate diagnosis. Pediatric radiologists also provide radiation treatment for children and teens affected by cancer.

Children tend to be more radiosensitive than adults, and have a longer life expectancy than adults. This may lead to a greater chance of developing cancer from exposures to ionizing radiation. The paediatric radiology community has long been aware of this issue and has developed radiation protection policies and practices that reflect this.

Nuclear Medicine Radiologist
A nuclear medicine radiologist administers trace amounts of radioactive substances (radionuclides) and uses techniques such as scintigraphy, which uses radiopharmaceuticals, in order to provide images and information for making a diagnosis and deciding on treatment. Imaging procedures include positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans. Radioactive materials can be injected into a patient's vein, be inhaled, or can be swallowed. Radiopharmaceuticals are used to treat thyroid cancer, solid tumors, hyperthyroidism, hematologic malignancies, or painful bone metastases.

Thoracic Radiologist
Thoracic radiologists specialize in all aspects of lung disorders and airway diseases, such as: interstitial lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer (primary and secondary thoracic malignancies), mediastinal masses, pleural disease, occupational disorders, emphysema, as well as diseases affecting the large and small airways (such as asthma, bronchiectasis, tracheomalacia). Thoracic radiologists use state-of-the-art technology, such as high-resolution chest CT, CT angiography of the aorta and pulmonary arteries, and conventional chest radiography.

Musculoskeletal Imaging Radiologist
A musculoskeletal imaging radiologist orders and interprets medical images of bones, joints and associated soft tissues, and diagnoses injuries and disease. They do various types of diagnostic work, including sports injury imaging, tumors, arthritis, infections, and bone diseases by using X-rays, fluoroscopy, CT scans, ultrasound, and MRI scans.

A typical scenario where a musculoskeletal imaging radiologist would come into play - a patient goes to see their general physician with a problematic knee or shoulder, the doctor will then direct the patient to get a medical image where a musculoskeletal imaging radiologist will then carefully interpret the scan by using his or her diagnostic expertise. The patient's general physician will receive and review the imaging report sent from the musculoskeletal imaging radiologist and will coordinate the information with the patient's overall care.

Are you suited to be a radiologist?

Radiologists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if radiologist is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Radiologist like?

Most of a radiologist's work is done in an office setting. They interpret images, read reports, and go over the results and diagnosis with other physicians.

Since most of the job involves interpreting results of radioactive imaging, patient contact is minimal. This is particularly true if the tests are performed primarily by a technician. Most of the dialogue is done through a patient's physician, who is responsible for applying the results and making treatment decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a radiologist and a radiologic technologist?

Both radiologists and radiology technologists work in a clinical or hospital setting, and are both health-care professionals.

A radiologist is a physician that will interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe a course of treatment for the patient. They begin their education with a bachelor's degree, then attend medical school. After a two year internship, they take a residency in radiology for four to seven years.

A radiologic technologist is the person performing the imaging tests on the patients (CT scans, MRI's, x-rays, and ultrasounds), who then hands them over to the radiologist for interpretation. The technologist needs to have earned either an associate's or a bachelor's degree before practicing, and must be licensed.

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What is the job satisfaction of a radiologist?

Medscape’s Physician Compensation Report determined the overall satisfaction level of 22 specialties. Overall satisfaction was ranked by averaging responses to questions about compensation and career and specialty choice. Radiologists came in second as a group in overall satisfaction (72 percent).

John A. Patti, M.D., FACR, radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chairman of the American College of Radiology Board of Chancellors, has been practicing for 36 years. He’s not surprised that his specialty ranked so high among physician satisfaction. “You’re at the center of everything,” he says. “There’s very little diagnosis that occurs today without the use of imaging. That makes you able to interact with a wide range of physicians and a wide range of patients.”

Radiologists tied with orthopaedic surgeons for the highest median annual income in the report, which might add to the group’s happiness quotient. (practicelink.com)

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How do I know if radiology is suitable for me?

Early on in medical school, it would be wise to pay attention to the role imaging plays in your cases. Keep your mind open to the specialty and what it entails, as this will give you a taste of what happens in radiology without committing a lot of time.

Do some radiology electives, and try to spend time in different areas to get a good sense of what the resident and the radiologist do in their day. When watching the residents and the radiologists interpret films, ask good questions inbetween images.

Talk to radiology residents, and ask them what the training is like, what they like and dislike about their specialty and their program. Talk to radiologists, and ask them what they like and dislike about their job. Ask them what their day is like. Ask them if they have any regrets about their choice of career. Ask if they can give you any advice that they wish they had received when they were first starting out.

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How long does it take to become a Radiologist?

The educational track for radiologists lasts at least thirteen years:

Pre-med Bachelor’s Degree – four years
Medical School – four years
Internship – one year
Residency – four years
Fellowship (optional) – one to two years

Are Radiologists happy?

Radiologists rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 100th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

A very high happiness quotient in the radiology field is not surprising, in view of the vital work that radiologists do and the personal reward they reap from it.

What are Radiologists like?

Based on our pool of users, Radiologists tend to be predominately investigative people. This finding is a reassuring one, for the public at large and especially for anyone relying on a radiologist to identify the medical issue they are facing. These healthcare professionals, perhaps more than any others, study, scrutinize, search, review, and investigate until they identify the problem at hand.

Should I become a Radiologist?

Becoming a radiologist is not an easy task. Getting through medical school, completing a residency, and getting accepted into a competitive fellowship program all demand academic aptitude. Overcoming these educational challenges may make you a competent clinician. To be an exceptional one, though, you need to cultivate some fundamental talents:

Advanced interpretive skills
Interpreting graphs and charts are a major part of a radiologist’s work. These doctors order scans to find evidence of tissue scarring, clots, and tumors. They must accurately interpret X-rays and images to diagnose conditions and determine treatment options.

Confidence-to-knowledge ratio
This is perhaps the most important trait of an effective clinician. While confidence is generally viewed as a positive trait, overconfidence – especially in medical circles – can, quite literally, be deadly. The ideal clinician realizes that unfamiliar situations may reveal knowledge gaps that necessitate collaboration and asking for help. Ignoring this fact is going to result in harm to patients.

Outstanding concentration and communication abilities
Effective collaboration can only happen when it is preceded and complemented by the ability to focus, understand, and communicate.

Dedication to learning
At every level – doctor, nurse, paramedic, etc. – the practice of medicine is a challenge. It is constantly evolving and advancing. It demands constant, lifelong learning. Unless you are prepared to commit to continuing medical education and take periodic board review and other courses, your academic knowledge will start to leak away and you will become the clinician who is just getting by, instead of the one who is on top of the latest guidelines and treatments.

Technology savvy
Radiology is technologically complex. New discoveries are made every year, and many of them incorporate new technologies and high-tech tools.

Radiologists are also known as:
Diagnostic Radiologist Interventional Neuroradiologist Interventional Radiologist Neuroradiologist