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Radiology Technician vs. Ultrasound Technician: What’s the Difference?

Understand the differences between these important and rewarding careers

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Home » Blog » Radiology Tech vs Ultrasound Tech
terry ward

Written and reported by:
Terry Ward
Contributing writer

Doctors hardly work alone. They rely on many other professionals to gather information about patients in order to deliver the best care.

One of the important tools doctors have when it comes to making diagnoses is medical imagery, and this is where radiology technicians and ultrasound technicians play a vital role. 

Radiology technicians and ultrasound technicians work in high-touch, high-technology fields with a growing demand and much room for professional growth. Both professions require specialized training to make the medical images of patients that doctors use in diagnoses and treatment plans. 

“To pursue a career in any of these fields, one must have an interest in the science of imaging and enjoy working in a field with continual advances in technology, along with a strong desire to care for human beings in all walks of life,” says Teresa L. Vatterott, MAEL, R.T.(R)(CV)(CI)(ARRT), initial certification supervisor, education requirements, with the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

How the Careers Differ

The biggest difference between radiology technicians and ultrasound technicians is the technology they use to create images.

Radiology technicians, also called radiologic technologists, create images of patients’ bodies using technology that primarily requires radiation, including:

X-ray:

Images commonly used to look at bones and joints

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):

A procedure used to create images of organs in the body

Computed tomography (CT):

Scans that allow doctors to see a cross-section of a body part

Fluoroscopy:

A procedure that uses contrast dyes to show movement through the body

Ultrasound technicians, also called sonographers, use only one type of equipment: an ultrasound machine. This technology emits high frequency sound waves to create body images, with no radiation involved.

Radiology and ultrasound testing can overlap, since both produce images, but some tests are better at capturing different things in the body. For instance, ultrasound captures images in real time and can show movement within the body. X-rays, on the other hand, produce static images.

How the Careers Are Similar

The images that radiology technicians and ultrasound technicians create are vital to decisions that physicians make about treatment. They can be used to:

  • Detect blockage in the blood supply to the brain and prevent a stroke
  • Evaluate the body’s circulatory system and detect blood clots
  • Diagnose joint problems and evaluate injuries like broken bones
  • Spot tumors

Before seeing a patient, ultrasound technicians and radiology technicians will look at the physician’s orders to make sure they align with the patient’s chart. 

Then the actual patient interaction and imaging begins. 

Compassion and Sensitivity Required

Because of the sensitive nature of many medical images, both radiology technicians and ultrasound technicians must have a calming bedside manner. Sensitive situations can arise when a patient or family member may try to gauge what a technician is seeing or become upset. At times like these, a technician must stay cool and maintain a sensitive demeanor.

“It’s important to have that ability to connect with a person who may feel nervous,” says Kevin Rush, senior director of credentialing operations for ARRT. “They may not understand what’s about to happen, so you have to discern if someone is afraid or just may not understand what’s happening.”

Workplaces for Radiology and Ultrasound Technicians

Radiologic technologists and sonographers can work in the same medical settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Urgent care centers
  • Operating rooms
  • Emergency rooms

And although radiology technicians and sonographers may see patients for different reasons, there can be a lot of cross-over in the patients themselves—men, women, and children; young and old.

Education Requirements

Both careers require a minimum two-year associate degree and clinical training, but you can also earn a bachelor’s degree in these fields.

Hands-on clinical internships are part of both degrees, and students in both programs will take some of the same classes, including:

  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Patient Positioning
  • Patient Safety

Here’s a look at courses specific to each field that students will take, whether they earn an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.

Courses Specific to Each Profession

Radiology Technician

  • Radiologic theory
  • Radiation physics
  • Radiologic procedures
  • Radiologic protection
  • Specialized clinical imaging

Ultrasound Technician

  • Principles of general sonography
  • Ultrasound physics and instrumentation
  • Sonography patient care
  • Abdominal scanning and pathology
  • OB/GYN scanning and pathology

If you pursue a bachelor’s, you could earn a Bachelor of Science degree with a concentration in radiography or sonography. Other possible degrees include a Bachelor of Science in Medical Imaging and a Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Sciences.

If you’re pursuing a four-year degree in either field, your coursework for a bachelor’s will include:

  • Healthcare ethics
  • Epidemiology
  • Conflict resolution in healthcare
  • Health policy

Clinical Training

Clinical rotations are the cornerstone of education for sonographers and radiologic technologists.

Students should expect to spend up to six months training in a variety of settings, from specialty clinics to large hospitals, using a variety of equipment.

You’ll see a variety of patients with a range of health problems to get the breadth of real-world training you’ll need. Expect to train under a preceptor, a professional who oversees training at a medical facility.

Three Crucial Skills

Your clinical training will drive home the importance of three crucial skills of successful radiology technicians and sonographers:

Precision:

You’ll need to carefully follow instructions to get the clear images a physician will need to diagnose or prescribe treatment for a patient.

Interpersonal Skills:

You’ll need compassion to work with patients who may be fearful and need extra guidance and patience to produce needed images.

Technical Skills:

You’ll need to be able to operate highly technical equipment with the skill and speed to handle a stream of patients.

Certification and Licensure

License and certification requirements vary for radiologic technologists and ultrasound technicians. While not always required by law, many employers look for certification when hiring.

Certification can help you stand out in a field of applicants, open doors to advancement, and increase your salary.

“There’s always the opportunity to keep growing while you’re working, to keep continuing your education,” says Falguni Patel, RDMS, RVT, RMSKS, a vice chair of the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography Council (ARDMS). 

Ultrasound Technicians

Currently, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon are the only states that require sonographers to be licensed.

The American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography offers a number of optional specialty certifications for ultrasound technicians. All of them require a base exam, the Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination, plus a specialty exam:

  • Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS)
  • Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS)
  • Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT)
  • Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer (RMKS)

Radiology Technicians

When it comes to radiologic technologists, state licensing and certification requirements are a hodgepodge. Some states don’t require a license, some only require certification, and some require both.

The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers certifications for technicians who have an associate degree or higher from an accredited program. The group also offers two certifications for ultrasound technicians:

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Nuclear Medicine Technology
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Radiography
  • Sonography
  • Vascular Sonography

Here are state licensing and certification requirements for radiologic technicians:

No License or Certification Required

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • South Dakota

ARRT Certification Only Required

  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia

State License and ARRT Certification Required

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Salaries and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for a radiology technician is $63,710 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 7% growth projected through 2029.

By comparison, ultrasound technicians make a median salary of $70,380, or about 9% more. That may be because there’s more demand for sonographers, whose profession is expected to grow by 12% through 2029.

“There are so many growth opportunities in this field,” says Patel. “You can start like a regular sonographer and, depending on what your strength is and what you want to specialize in, you can become a preceptor, a mentor, you can go into leadership.

“It’s a great career and there’s not much education involved,” she says. “You make such a good living and it’s so rewarding. You have nothing to lose.”

When it comes to radiology technician careers, Rush says “there is a lot of room for growth” because there are so many specialties to pursue, both in terms of imaging and medical condition.

“The population is living longer and there’s growth for the other modalities as we continue to find less invasive ways to determine if someone has an illness or injury,” he says.

Which Career Is Right for You?

One of the key things to keep in mind when considering these career paths is the human element they both involve. The images you create are attached to people, and your work can bring joy, relief, apprehension, and a host of other emotions.

“Consider your ability to deal with the human condition,” says Rush. “If you work in a small town, be prepared that you may be interacting with someone you know or the parent of someone you know. Maybe your favorite teacher.” 

The images you create are attached to people, and your work can bring joy, relief, apprehension, and a host of other emotions.

“You have to be able to deal with people when they’re not necessarily at their best,” he says, “and often through no fault of their own.” 

“You have to be professional and personal at the same time,” adds Patel. “You deal with a lot of emotions from patients and caretakers, and you have to keep that straight face and still be able to comfort them.” 

The rewards of both careers, however, are many. 

“It’s an eight-hour job that requires being on call and weekend work, but it feels good that I’ve made a difference when I’m done,” says Patel. “These images are actually saving people’s lives out there. I’ve been doing it all these years and I’m still not bored.” 

teresa vatterott

With professional insight from:
Teresa L. Vatterott, MAEL, R.T.(R)(CV)(CI)(ARRT)
Initial Certification Supervisor, Education Requirements
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists

kevin rush

With professional insight from:
Kevin L. Rush, R.T.(R)(T)(ARRT), CRA, FASRT
Senior Director, Credentialing Operations
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists

falguni patel

With professional insight from:
Falguni Patel, RDMS, RVT, RMSKS
Vice Chairperson, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography Council (ARDMS)