Medical Imaging Overview: History, Training & Job Growth

Your guide to ultrasound and radiologic tech education, certification and careers.


What is Medical Imaging?


Medical imaging technology plays an important role in today’s health care system, and workers with the knowledge and skills to perform diagnostic imaging procedures are in high demand.

In short, medical imaging is the process of visualizing the body’s parts and organs in order for medical doctors and technicians to diagnose, monitor and treat disease or injury. Medical imaging consists of several different types of imaging:

  • X-ray imaging
  • Computed tomography (CT)
  • Mammography
  • Nuclear medicine and molecular imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasound imaging
  • Radiography
  • Fluoroscopy

Medical imaging encompasses a wide array of procedures and technologies, and these advance as technology advances. As an example, mammography now offers the option of digital 3D and 4D imaging rather than film 2D, which was an industry standard for years. Because the field is ever-changing, your education will need to be dynamic as well in order to stay relevant as your profession changes with technological advancements.

What Can You Do with Medical Imaging Training?


First you’ll need to choose the field of imaging you want to pursue. You might consider the following career paths in the field:

  • Radiographer
  • Magnetic resonance technologist
  • Nuclear medicine technologist
  • Sonographer
  • Radiation therapist
  • Ultrasound technician

Common outcomes for those who earn a medical imaging degree are to work in a medical setting as a technician, technologist, assistant or nurse. All will have different educational requirements and levels of expertise. Assistants, for example, complete advanced studies and work directly under radiologists or medical specialists.

Radiologic nurses are Registered Nurses who complete special training in treating patients who are undergoing medical imaging procedures, most commonly radiology. Radiologists are licensed medical doctors who are experts in interpreting digital imagery, and like all medical doctors must undergo four years of medical school, a year-long internship and four years of residency in their medical imaging field.


The History and Evolution of Medical Imaging


With Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray in 1895, the field of medical imaging was born. The X-ray became the basis for other advancements in the field, such as mammography, tomography, angiography and fluoroscopy, which developed subsequently in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

The 1950s were a peak time for advancement in medical imaging as nuclear medicine became a feasible diagnostic imaging tool. PET scans emerged from this technology, and became the primary technique to diagnose cancer and its metastasizing to other parts of the body.

Ultrasound was first used clinically in the 1970s as did the first computed tomography scans, such as CT and MRI. Since there were previously no real ways to image the brain, ultrasound was a breakthrough in the field.

MR and MRI was a major step in imaging due to its ability to monitor treatments in real time and also its versatility. As technology speedily advances, most experts agree medical imaging is at an exciting crux, and doctors and technologists will be able to see if a therapeutic drug is working in a matter of hours, and disease will be detected less invasively—and more importantly, earlier and before it has progressed to the incurable stage.


What You’ll Study


You’ll find a wide range of education programs; the certificate and diploma program are mostly for those already in the healthcare industry, such as nurses, but can get you started in the field and prep you to get your license.

A more common path, especially for radiology and sonography students is a two-year associate’s degree. These degree programs will qualify you to earn your license as well.

Bachelor’s degree programs include in-depth instruction and help you get a more rounded education in subjects such as math and English. If you want to enter a medical imaging field quickly, your best bet will be an associate’s degree, but if you aspire to move into technologist roles or actually become a radiologist, you should consider a bachelor’s degree program as you’ll need to build upon your four-year degree later.

No matter what education path you select, you’ll need to take some basic courses to understand the science and function of the human organism. Radiologic tech programs may include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Physics
  • Pathology
  • Medical terminology
  • Introduction to Radiologic Science
  • Radiography
  • Issues in the Practice Environment
  • Radiologic Science I and II

Ultrasound and Diagnostic Medical Sonography may include:

  • Pathophysiology
  • Ultrasound Scanning
  • Ultrasound Instrumentation
  • Clinical Education

You’ll also be required to take basic coursework in human anatomy, physics and physiology and may need to enhance your studies with classes in psychology, composition and communication.

An important component of your education will be making sure whatever program you choose is accredited, especially if you plan to become professionally certified after earning your degree. You can research which schools meet the standards agreed upon by the accrediting agencies and bodies by visiting their websites:

  • Commission in Accreditation for Allied Health Education Programs
  • Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
  • Joint Review Committee in Radiologic Technology
  • American Registry of Radiologic Technologists

Salary and Job Growth

Job growth and salary prospects are good for those who join the medical imaging field, largely because of an aging population with an increase in healthcare needs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 17% job growth rate through 2029 for Radiologic and MRI Techs, while Diagnostic Sonographers will have a 12% growth for the same time period.

Medical Imaging Annual Average Salary

for the following healthcare careers


Medical Imaging Technologists, Radiologic & MRI Techs




Radiation Therapists

Salaries are healthy for medical imaging technologists, and Radiologic and MRI techs earned an average annual salary of $63,120, while Diagnostic Sonographers earned $75,780 and radiation therapists pocketed $91,620 annually.

Read more about medical imaging salaries.


Medical Imaging Technician Personality Traits and Skills


Medical imaging technicians might capture images of broken bones, tissue abnormalities or even unborn babies in pregnant women. You can choose to work in one of two areas of medical imaging: Radiology (using radiation to obtain images) and sonography (using sound waves). Sound interesting? See if you’ve got the skills and personality for a job as a medical imaging technician.

You are…

  • Organized
  • Detail-oriented
  • A “people person”
  • Level-headed
  • Patient
  • Communicative
  • Dependable

You should have…

  • Good hand-eye coordination
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Solid interpersonal skills
  • An ability to calm others
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Strong organizational skills


How to Get Started in Medical Imaging

Getting started depends upon where you currently are in your education or career. If you already work in the healthcare industry, entering the medical imaging field may be as straightforward as earning a certificate in a six month program.

But if you’re sure this is the field for you and you’re just getting going, you’ll need to research schools and start learning which area of medical imaging you’d like to enter. You may be able to talk to technicians and technologists working in the field by asking questions at your local hospital and explain that you are trying to narrow your options. Finding out what you’ll actually do on the job and what a typical day is like is a great way to figure out what your focus should be.

No matter what area of medical imaging you choose, make sure your school is accredited and that you understand exactly what you’ll need to do to advance in the field after you earn your degree. Most employers prefer their medical imaging workers—no matter what area you pursue—to hold professional certification, which consists of graduating from an accredited program and passing an exam.

We can help you find accredited programs in your area, or if you need to research online programs due to work or family commitments, we can help there as well. Why not get started on your medical imaging career path today?

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