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Radiology is the medical discipline that delivers diagnostic imaging to investigate and facilitate diagnosis and guide treatment. Radiologists are the doctors that perform interventional procedures and interpret the great majority of other imaging tests. Radiographers are the technical specialists that deliver and facilitate most radiological procedures. There are numerous skills shared between the two roles, the training pathways are distinct. Therefore, the differentiation between a radiologist and a radiographer lies in their areas of responsibility and their previous training.
Radiologists are specialist doctors with advanced training in medical imaging and diagnostics. Their primary responsibilities are to establish the underlying diagnosis, assess the results of specific therapies and provide surveillance going forward for a wide range of medical conditions. This requires interpretation of imaging studies, often incorporating a comparison with previous examinations and the production of a detailed report. This is then provided to the referring medical specialist and incorporated into the patient record. The report will usually contain the reason for the examination, the technique employed, the findings and the conclusion and recommendations for further treatment or investigation. Typically, for CT and MRI studies and for plain radiographic (x-ray) examinations the radiologist will not perform the test or operate the equipment, since this is the role of the radiographer. However, for many ultrasound studies, or procedures requiring a radiological ‘intervention’ the radiologist will undertake the procedure themselves.
Radiologists are first and foremost medical doctors. They attend medical school to obtain basic medical training and qualifications. In the United Kingdom they will have been required to complete two foundation years in general medical training when they first become a qualified doctor. These foundation years allow doctors to experience a wide variety of varying medical fields before deciding on their chosen medical speciality. Typically, it will require at least 5 years of specialist training to become qualified as a radiologist. During this training they will rotate through all the various subspecialties within the field. As they progress through radiology training, they will learn more advanced skills and techniques. Once they have completed 5 years of speciality training, and have passed the relevant examinations, they will be permitted to enter the register of accredited radiologists and apply to be a consultant radiologist.
Radiographers are the healthcare professionals who facilitate and perform most diagnostic studies. Radiographers have advanced training enabling them to operate various types of specialist scanning equipment from CT and MRI scanners to X-ray machines. The radiographer is also responsible for ensuring the images being obtained are of high quality and are fit for the purpose of diagnosis. They are also responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the patient as they guide them through what can sometimes be a daunting experience.
Unlike a radiologist, a radiographer is not a medical doctor. Instead, radiographers must complete a specialist focused training program which on average takes 3-4 years to complete. The course length and entry requirements will vary depending on previous qualifications. The course covers detailed anatomy and physiology in addition to physics and imaging science. In the UK the course material will also include aspects of sociology, ethics and management, which helps to underpin a high standard of patient care. All radiographer training programmes will involve extensive practical work in simulated and real clinical settings.
Written by Professor Simon Padley, Consultant Radiologist at OneWelbeck Imaging & Diagnostics specialising in advanced in thoracic and vascular imaging and intervention, and general body imaging.