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From Analog to Digital Technology: The Evolving Role of the Medical Imaging Professional

written by Bobbie Konter, M.S., R.T.(R)
Adjunct Faculty | Radiologic Sciences| Online Learning
Adventist University of Health Sciences

bachelors in radiologic sciences online



Try to imagine today’s healthcare system without the advantages of medical imaging. The discovery of x-rays by Roentgen in 1895 followed by the work of Becquerel and the Curies with radioactivity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries revolutionized the practice of medicine. Developments in the use of sound waves resulted in the practical application of ultrasound in medicine in the 1950’s.

Radiography, nuclear medicine technology and sonography existed as diagnostic medical imaging tools or modalities before the extensive use of computer technology in healthcare. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are inherently digital modalities. Therefore, they could not exist without the use of a computer for image acquisition and reconstruction. British Engineer, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, is credited with the invention of the first computed tomography scanner in the early 1970’s. The development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is attributed to Dr. Paul Lautebur with the first scan being performed in 1973.

Modern Medical Imaging Professionals

Over the years, advancements in imaging technology have revolutionized the practice of medicine leading to earlier and more accurate diagnoses than ever imagined by some of the early pioneers mentioned above.

In today’s healthcare arena, medical imaging professionals perform diagnostic imaging and interventional procedures and administer radiation therapy while working under the direction of radiologists.  Currently, medical imaging professionals are the third largest category of healthcare professionals, following physicians and nurses.  Their education includes the fundamentals of anatomy and physiology, patient positioning, physics and instrumentation techniques and protocols, radiation safety and protection and basic patient care. Prospective employers, accrediting agencies, state licensing agencies and federal regulatory bodies recognize certification by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB), and the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) as evidence that an individual has met the required standards for his or her profession in a particular area of medical imaging.

Following successful completion of an educational program (minimum of Associate degree) and certification by the appropriate credentialing organization, most medical imaging professionals enter clinical practice in their specialized area. Primary career pathways are radiography, nuclear medicine technology, sonography, radiation therapy and magnetic resonance imaging. Post primary pathways available to medical imaging professionals include computed tomography, mammography, cardiac-interventional radiography, vascular-interventional radiography, bone densitometry and quality management.  Each of these pathways, both primary and post primary, offers the individual the opportunity to contribute to improved outcomes and more cost-efficient healthcare for their patients by working collaboratively with other professionals in all areas of medical imaging.

An integrative approach to medical imaging provides seamless care for patients in a variety of situations. For example, screening targeted subpopulations with increased risk of a specific disease is becoming common practice. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older should have a yearly mammogram, which is an x-ray exam of the breasts. If the mammogram indicates an area of concern, the radiologist may ask for immediate follow-up of a breast sonogram. Additionally, MRI of the breasts may provide further information. Each modality offers diagnostic information which is acquired by the team of medical imaging professionals, correlated by the radiologist and shared with the patient’s primary care physician and appropriate specialists.

Managing Medical Imaging Departments

Managing the large volume of images produced in today’s medical imaging department can be a daunting task. The transition from film- and paper-based methods to digital or computer-based methods of image acquisition, reconstruction, distribution and storage has offered solutions to some of the challenges. The concept of a Picture Archiving and Communications System (PACS) was developed to provide economical storage of digital images as well as convenient access to those images. The current trend in medical imaging is toward enterprise-wide image management utilizing a PACS. For example, images from a variety of modalities within the department, images produced in the emergency department, images produced in cardiology suites and surgical suites can be linked or shared across a network of imaging centers or hospitals using an enterprise-wide PACS. Involving the Radiology Information System (RIS) and the Hospital Information System (HIS) saves time and enables faster turnaround time resulting in greater efficiency in patient management and quality care.

The challenge of managing a multi-modality imaging department and continuously evolving PACS calls for leaders with vision and technical expertise grounded in the fundamentals of the imaging modalities in the department. For example, the management team of a typical imaging department may include medical imaging professionals who began their career in the clinical practice of radiography, nuclear medicine technology, sonography, radiation therapy or MRI. With additional education and experience, these individuals often move into a supervisory and/or management position that requires oversight of modalities outside their immediate area of expertise. It is of vital importance that they have a good understanding of how all imaging modalities work together to contribute to improved patient outcomes and cost-effective healthcare. This often involves a basic understanding of image acquisition, reconstruction, distribution and storage in a variety of modalities. For example, it is important to remember that image acquisition, regardless of the modality, is the first point of data entry into PACS.

Today’s world of medical imaging can be seen as an opportunity to provide patients with care and services that were not available prior to the introduction of current technology.  Three dimensional image reconstruction is a good example. With the advantages that digital imaging technology and PACS brings to the broader scope of healthcare, it is very important for medical imaging professionals to comprehend the extent of the imaging department’s role and workflow process in the context of the healthcare network.

Many medical imaging professionals who wish to advance their career opportunities seek a Bachelor’s degree once they obtain certification in their primary career pathway as described above. Adventist University’s online Bachelor’s degree in Radiologic Sciences can open the door to a rewarding career path that allows medical imaging professionals to be successful in the healthcare field. Adventist University emphasizes both educational growth as well as personal and professional growth.