Radiology Assistants and Radiology Physician Assistants

15 March 2020 - Collaborative Imaging
Radiologists can relieve the stress of being over-worked by delegating imaging procedures to radiology assistants (RAs) or to Radiology Physician Assistants.
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Radiologists work under a lot of pressure. Physicians who order imaging tests generally want the results as soon as reasonably possible. Additionally, with more physicians ordering imaging, from CT scans to MRIs, from mammograms to routine x-rays, the stress on radiologists leads to burnout.

The Advisory Board, an organization of approximately 250 health care professional experts, provides recommendations and actionable strategies to various health care providers to, in its own words, “change health care for the better.” The Board recommends that radiologists reduce their workload and stress by delegating work to non-physician providers (NPPs).

Two NPPs available to radiologists are radiology assistants and radiology physician assistants. Each provides a different level of service for assistance to radiologists depending on the specific need.

Radiology Assistants

Training and education. Radiology assistants generally need at least an associate degree followed by certification. Although not every state requires certification, most hospitals and radiologists require certification even if the state does not.

Where the jobs are. Approximately 60 percent of all radiology assistants work in hospitals. The remaining 40 percent work in doctor’s offices, diagnostic laboratories, or outpatient care centers.

Radiology assistant salary. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BOL), the median annual income for Radiology and MRI assistants is $61,240 ($29.44 per hour). The job outlook is good, meaning the need for these assistants is growing faster than the average occupation with at least 23,300 more needed by 2028.

Job descriptions and possibility for advancement. Assistants work closely with the physicians by carefully following specific directions, taking a medical history from the patient, specifically checking for any allergic responses if any oral or IV substance is used for a test, and explaining the procedure to the patients. Radiology assistants protect patients from unnecessary radiation exposure and keep detailed medical records. They properly position the patient and the equipment and with the input from the radiologist, decides whether to take additional images.

Radiology assistants may become mammography or MRI technologists. They may get an advanced degree and become radiology physician assistants.

Skills needed. Radiology assistants must be extremely detailed oriented. They must follow exact instructions in order to get the image doctors need to make a diagnosis. They also work closely with often distressed patients who may be in pain, so must have good inter-personal skills so that can help assuage patient fears. They also need technical and math skills for operating the complex machinery and for preparing contrast solutions for intravenous (IV) injection.

Radiology Physician Assistants

Training and education. Radiology physician assistants (RPAs) essentially practice radiology medicine under the supervision of a licensed radiologist. RPAs generally must have a master’s degree for radiology assistants earned at an accredited institution. The graduate programs are typically two-year programs. Some take three-years. All states require RPAs to be licensed.

Most health care providers must have at least two years of clinical experience before they can apply to an RPA training program.

In addition to being licensed in their individual state, after completing the degree program, RPAs must be certified by taking the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. Offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

Where the jobs are. In 2018, there were 118,800 PA jobs with 55 percent of those being in doctor’s offices. The remaining were divided among hospitals and outpatient care centers.

RPA Salaries. In 2018, the median annual salary for physician assistants (PAs) in general was $118,610 ($52.22 per hour). The job growth between 2018 and 2028 is projected to be 31 percent, which is much faster than in other occupations. That translates to a need for 37,000 more PAs by 2028.

Job description. RPAs use state-of-the-art technology, including X-ray, computer tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines that are used to diagnose illnesses and diseases. The use ultrasound machines and work under the close supervision of a licensed and certified radiologist.

In addition, the RPA assists licensed radiologists with invasive and non-invasive procedures, educates patients on procedures, evaluates quality of the images, and reports all findings to the supervising licensed radiologist.

Skills needed. RPAs need to have a number of very specific skills.

  • Must be detail oriented. This is needed for obtaining patient information, as well as for knowing how to position the body, measure accurately IV contrast injections, adjust the machines, and many other tasks that require precision.
  • Work with compassion since many people needing the service are greatly concerned about the process of having the procedure performed, and equally concerned about the outcome and eventual diagnosis.
  • Physical stamina is needed since RPAs stand on their feet many hours every day. This is especially true of those who work in operating rooms assisting radiologists with procedures.
  • Good communication skills are imperative since the RPA works closely with patients who are often stressed about their medical condition and need for the tests that are being conducted. The RPA is entrusted with not only doing or assisting with the procedure, but also with explaining the entire procedure, how it works, what its purpose is, how the patient needs to behave, and all other aspects concerning the procedure.
  • Ability to work both independently and with a team.
  • Ability to interpret basic x-rays and lab tests.

This is far from a complete list, but a basic overview of what personal and interpersonal skills an RPA is expected to have.