Become a Radiology Nurse... And See What Develops
March 15, 2021
If you want to become a nurse, are fascinated by diagnostic tech, and thrive in fast-paced (but low-stress) environments, consider a career in radiologic nursing.
Radiology nurses (sometimes called medical imaging nurses or radiologic nurses) work with patients who need ultrasounds, magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRIs), X-rays, radiation imaging, or cancer treatments. They prepare patients for procedures, administer sedatives and IV medications, and monitor patients while they're being scanned. They also sometimes operate high-tech diagnostic medical equipment or evaluate the sickest patients to determine whether they're strong enough to undergo imaging procedures.
For the right person, radiology nursing can be a gratifying career. Consider the following questions:
- Are you fascinated by medical imaging technology?
- Are you willing to learn how to use new types of radiologic technologies as they emerge?
- Does your idea of the perfect nursing career involve predictable hours, predictable procedures, and patients who are relatively calm and compliant?
If so, radiology may be the field for you.
In this article, we'll cover:
- What does a radiology nurse do?
- The education required to become a radiology nurse
- How to break into radiologic nursing
- Specialty areas within radiology nursing
- What is the average radiology nurse salary?
- Pros and cons of becoming a radiology nurse
What does a radiology nurse do?
As a radiology nurse, your focus will always be on patient safety. As patients undergo diagnostic imaging procedures, you will be there to:
- Prepare them for what's to come
- Monitor their condition
- Assess whether it's safe to keep going when a patient is in distress
You'll do this by:
- Confirming that patients are getting the correct procedures: Radiology nurses make sure patients and charts match up, check and verify vital signs, confirm lab results, and review medical histories. It's an important responsibility because MRIs can be risky for patients with pacemakers or artificial hip joints. Also, no one should ever undergo an unnecessary or inappropriate medical procedure.
- Educating patients about the purpose of procedures and any risks involved: Most radiologic procedures are safe, but some are riskier than others, and it's important that patients and their families understand what they are consenting to.
- Giving patients clear discharge and planning instructions: Some imaging or oncological procedures require aftercare or specific follow-up.
- Inserting and removing intravenous lines: Many diagnostic imaging procedures and radiologic oncology procedures require that patients receive dyes, contrast mediums, or medications via IV. Nurses handle this duty.
- Administering medications or conscious-sedation drugs ordered by doctors
- Administering non-IV contrast mediums like barium enemas or the radiopharmaceuticals used in nuclear medicine
- Monitoring patients during procedures: Radiological nurses monitor patients' vital signs and oxygen saturation to ensure that they are not in distress. This is especially important when the sickest patients are undergoing procedures.
- Operating radiology machines alongside radiology technicians or independently
- Assisting during medical procedures that take place during imaging: These include angiograms, myelograms, nephrostomy tube placements, ash-split placements, PICC line placements, catheter placements, and vascular embolizations.
- Reading diagnostic images and making recommendations before the images are reviewed by pathologists
- Serving as a liaison between patients and doctors
- Providing post-procedure monitoring: Some radiological procedures can result in minor complications such as bleeding from an IV site, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, and burns (in the case of high doses of radiation during cancer treatment). Radiology nurses monitor patients until they can be safely discharged.
Radiology nurses work in:
- Diagnostic imaging facilities in hospitals
- Outpatient care centers
- Diagnostic imaging centers
- Cardiac clinics
- Endovascular clinics
- Wound care clinics
- Women's health facilities
A nurse's specific duties vary from facility to facility, but in general, radiology nurses care for patients undergoing:
- CT scans
- Nuclear radiology
They also work with cancer patients receiving radiation treatments.
The education required to become a radiology nurse
The educational commitment to becoming a radiology nurse begins in a degree program and never really ends since nurses in all specialties have to meet continuing education requirements to maintain nursing certifications. To become a radiology nurse, you must first become a registered nurse (RN), which means earning either an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN). Most employers in radiology prefer to hire nurses with bachelor's degrees, so while you can launch a nursing career with an ADN, you should plan to go back to school eventually.
You should always look for fully-accredited undergraduate nursing degree programs, like those at:
- Duke University
- Johns Hopkins University
- University of California - Irvine
- University of Massachusetts - Amherst
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Pennsylvania
There are two main accreditation bodies in nursing education: The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Both maintain lists of accredited programs.
Earning an ADN takes about two years for full-time nursing students while earning a bachelor's degree in nursing typically takes four years. Accelerated RN-to-BSN programs allow working nurses to earn their bachelor's degrees in less time, as well as accelerated RN-to-MSN programs that don't require nurses to hold a BSN to apply. You can find RN-to-MSN programs at:
- Nova Southeastern University
- Sacred Heart University
- Thomas Edison State University
- University of Delaware
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
A master's degree in nursing may advance your career in the long run, but in the short term, the best degree path for aspiring radiology nurses is probably the BSN. A bachelor's degree (along with a nursing license) will give you the qualifications necessary to begin working as a nurse.
How to break into radiologic nursing
Radiology nurses are often hired at the RN level. They typically have plenty of career experience in nursing before joining this specialty. It's not unusual for radiology nurses to begin their careers in:
- The emergency room
- Trauma medicine
- Critical and acute care
Most employers require a minimum of two years of clinical experience to become a radiology nurse. You'll need to accrue a minimum of 2,000 hours of experience in radiology before you can be certified.
The Association for Radiologic and Imaging Nursing (ARIN) offers courses that can fulfill the education requirements—specifically their two-day imaging review course. The Radiologic Nursing Certification Board, which governs certification for radiology nurses, administers the Certified Radiology Nurse (CRN) certification exam (which you can take if your RN license is current and you meet the work requirements). It consists of 175 questions related to:
- Patient care
- Care plan creation
- Therapeutic interventions
- Patient and family education
- Emergency situations
- Radiology technology
- Breast health
- Interventional radiology
- Radiation therapy
An MSN can improve your employment opportunities and put you on the path to becoming a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist. From there, you can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) in radiology—a key position in radiology and the one that most often involves working closely with imaging and interventional radiologists. Some MSN programs include opportunities to take additional classes in the radiological sciences and to complete clinical rotations in radiology.
Some nurses who are especially interested in the technical side of medical imaging choose to pursue master's degrees in radiologic and imaging sciences instead of the more common MSN. If this option intrigues you, consider the following schools:
- Loma Linda University (online).
- Southern Illinois University - Carbondale
- Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University)
- The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
You should also consider becoming a member of a radiology nursing organization like ARIN for networking opportunities and career support.
Specialty areas within radiology nursing
Diagnostic radiology includes everything from basic X-rays to MRIs and other scans that require administration of contrast dyes, medications, or sedation. Radiology nurses may be generalists or may choose to steer their career into one of these areas:
- Breast imaging
- Cardiovascular radiology
- Chest radiology
- Emergency radiology
- Gastrointestinal radiology
- Head and neck radiology
- Musculoskeletal radiology
- Genitourinary radiology
- Nuclear radiology (PET, PET/CT, gamma imaging)
Radiology nurses can also specialize in radiation therapy and create and implement treatment plans in oncology under the guidance of an oncology radiologist. Then there's interventional radiology (IR), which uses radiological technology to perform delicate medical procedures (like biopsies, angioplasty, and stent placement) in a minimally invasive way.
"It is a whole new world of nursing," Ron Gore, RN, told the website Working Nurse in an interview. "It is much different from working on the floor where you send your patient off to surgery and when they return everything is all better. In IR, the patient comes in with a diagnosis, you see the problem on the monitor, and view the treatment live right before your eyes."
What is the average radiology nurse salary?
According to PayScale.com, the average radiology nurse annual income is $68,328. How much you actually make when you become a radiology nurse will depend on your location, whether you work in a large hospital or a small lab, whether you've earned your MSN or another master's degree, and your sub-specialty. According to Indeed.com, the average interventional radiology nurse income in the United States is about $1,470 per week. Radiology nurse practitioners generally make more than radiology RNs because they take on more responsibility.
Pros and cons of becoming a radiology nurse
Pros of becoming a radiology nurse
- Relatively low stress- High pay
- Most of the patients you see when you become a radiology nurse won't be in critical condition
Cons of becoming a radiology nurse
- Radiology nursing is a relatively new specialty, so you might be called upon to undertake duties outside of your bailiwick (e.g., writing patient care policies, developing care plans)
- In addition to dealing with patients, you'll need to deal with technology, and you'll need to stay up-to-date on all the latest technological advances
As the University of California - San Francisco Department of Radiology & Biomedical Imaging explains: "Perhaps the most important trait the radiology nurses bring to the table may be their ability to deliver world-class comfort and safety to patients who undergo diagnostic and therapeutic imaging procedures." You may never see the patients who relied on the reassurances you gave them during scary or traumatic procedures again, but you can rest assured that you made a genuine difference in their medical experience.
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