Radiologic Technologist vs. Radiologist: Shedding Light on the Differences
If you’re looking to move on from go-nowhere jobs and get yourself established in a more substantial career, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the growing healthcare field. There’s an entire generation of baby boomers hitting the peak of their healthcare needs, and healthcare providers will need help keeping up with the demand for their services.
There are quite a few solid career options in this field, so where should you start? Radiology is an appealing field for many—but when it comes down to choosing a radiology career path, there are questions that still need answering: What’s the difference between radiologic technologists and radiologists? How can you know which career path is best for you?
To help you get a better handle on this branch of healthcare careers, we’ve rounded up the important information you’ll need for comparing radiologists to radiologic technologists.
What is a radiologist?
A radiologist is a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who has decided to concentrate their medical training on the specialty of radiology. Often, radiologists focus their careers on a specific subspecialty of radiology like pediatrics, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal or nuclear radiology—just to name a few.
While there are certainly big differences between these subspecialties, the primary role of a radiologist is to interpret diagnostic images to make a medical diagnosis. This requires a deep understanding of both the systems governing a body and the diagnostic tools at their disposal. Additionally, certain subspecialties like interventional radiology or radiation oncology also involve the direct treatment of patients.
Often, these doctors are working in concert with other physicians. Once a diagnosis is made, they’ll communicate any findings to the patient’s ordering doctor who will then take over the case for treatment.
Radiologist job duties
Some of the main duties of a radiologist are:1
- Obtaining patient histories from electronic records, patient interviews and communication with referring clinicians
- Acting as an expert consultant to a referring physician, advising in examination choice and interpretation of results and treatment options
- Interpreting the outcomes of diagnostic imaging procedures and correlating results with other exams and tests
- Evaluating a patient's medical information/history to determine future procedures
- Coordinating with other medical professionals and patients to implement a treatment plan
- Directing radiologic technologists to ensure diagnostic imaging quality
What is a radiologic technologist?
While a radiologist interprets images for diagnosis, a radiologic technologist (sometimes called “rad tech” or “radiologic tech”) is the healthcare professional in charge of capturing those images.
“A radiologic tech is a trained imaging technologist who works in a radiology department in one or more modalities, or imaging specialties,” says Laura Horton, a clinical specialist sonographer.
This role requires direct patient interaction as well as knowledge of how to operate and maintain highly technical specialized equipment.
Radiologic technologist job duties
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the main duties of a radiologic technologist are to:2
- Adjust, maintain and operate the medical imaging equipment
- Work with patients for imaging procedures by taking a medical history, positioning the patient and the equipment in order to get the correct image, and shielding exposed areas that do not need to be imaged
- Keep detailed patient records
- Work with physicians to evaluate the images and determine whether additional images need to be taken
All of these job duties help set the foundation for a variety of specialties rad techs can pursue following their core education and training:
- Nuclear medicine
- MRI technology
- Bone densitometry
- Computed tomography
Radiologic technologist vs. radiologist: Education requirements
As you might expect, there’s quite a divergence in education between a doctor and a technologist. The road to a career as a radiologic technologist is much shorter—the Radiologic Technology Associate’s degree program at Rasmussen University can be completed in as few as 24 months.3 Pair this education with professional certification through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists®, and you’ll be well on your way. That said, licensure requirements are not uniform across all states, so make sure you understand the requirements of the state in which you wish to practice.
Radiologists are licensed physicians with a specialty in radiology, so they require the lengthy education and training process that comes with working as a physician. That means four years of undergrad followed by four years of medical school and a residency program, according to the BLS.2 All said and done, it can take eight to 12 years to become a radiologist.2
“It’s a long process,” says Krysty Radabaugh, director of Operations/Chief MRI Technology at All-American Teleradiology. “Not many have or will take the time.”
Though the educational requirements differ, Radabaugh says both careers require time, effort and precision in their work. After all, the right image and corresponding diagnosis can be the difference between life and death for patients.
Radiologic technologist vs. radiologist: Salary and job outlook
Considering their (typically) shorter time in school, radiologic technologists have strong earning potential. According to the BLS, the 2021 median annual salary for radiologic technologists and technicians was $61,370.2 The job outlook for radiologic technologists is also solid—the BLS projects a 9 percent growth in employment from 2020 through 2030, a rate on par with the national average for all occupations.2
Financial compensation for radiologists is in line with what you’d expect for a physician. According to the BLS, the 2021 mean annual wage for radiologists was $301,720.2 Their job outlook is also positive, with employment of all healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners projected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 12 percent from 2020 through 2030.2
Radiologic technologist vs. radiologist: Important qualities
Both of these careers are a good destination for anyone with an interest in technology since imaging equipment is at the heart of the radiology field. However, some personalities may find they’re a better fit for one job over the other.
Radiologic technologists have a more patient-facing role than radiologists. This necessitates professionals who are patient and inclusive, allowing all patients to feel valued and acknowledged, according to Horton. Radabaugh suggests that rad techs should be empathetic since they’ll be working directly with patients in what may be a scary or stressful medical situation. The ability to manage others is useful as well since rad techs sometimes need to balance interacting with patients, time constraints and the precise imaging work needed. You’ll be well suited for a rad tech job if you have a calming personality and enjoy working with both technology and people alike.
Radiologists need plenty of determination and commitment since they’ll need lots of education to enter the field and may need to work long hours once they land their dream job, says Radabaugh.
Beyond possessing the extensive medical knowledge of a physician, radiologists ideally need to be strong communicators, able to collaborate and willing to teach with humility when necessary.
“The best radiologists discuss cases with you and recognize that we are a team,” Horton says.
Can a radiologic technologist become a radiologist?
Technically, yes—but this is not a common or even advisable route for most to take. As you can probably tell by now, there is quite a substantial difference between a rad tech and a radiologist despite working in the same field. While working as a radiologic technologist can be a great way to get into the field and gain experience, it does not give you a substantive head start on the path to becoming a radiologist.
“The only way you can transition from a radiologic tech to a radiologist is to go to medical school and become a doctor,” says Horton.
Admittance into medical school upon completing your undergraduate degree is by no means guaranteed. When paired with the expense and time commitment required of becoming a physician, making the transition from radiologic technologist to radiologist is not likely to be a viable option for most.
Which career will you choose?
Now that you better understand the differences between these two common radiology-focused careers, you can make an informed decision about which career path is best for you. Your personality, salary expectations and the length of time you’re willing to spend in school are all factors you’ll want to consider as you weigh your options.
If you think becoming a radiologic technologist is right for you, check out “How to Become a Radiologic Technologist: Examining Your Path.”
1“What Does a Radiologist Do?” RadiologyInfo.org, Feb 8, 2021. [Accessed May 2022] https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info/article-your-radiologist.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed May 2022] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary. Annual wages have been calculated by multiplying the hourly mean wage by a "year-round, full-time" hours figure of 2,080 hours; for those occupations where there is not an hourly wage published, the annual wage has been directly calculated from the reported survey data.
3Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated.
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists is a registered trademark of The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.