The Real Poop
Radiation accidents don't always produce Spidermen or Incredible Hulks. There are thousands of others who develop superhero-like qualities following exposure to radiation, but they toil away in the darkness, their faces aglow in the light of their computer screens.
They pore over detailed images of human anatomy, searching endlessly for the invisible foes of good health. They work tirelessly—for mere hundreds of thousands of dollars—scanning for lumps, specks, anomalies, and missing children's toys. Who are these creatures who probe and poke and extract buried secrets from the depths of our bodies?
They're radiologists—doctors who've gone to the dark side. They work in rooms with the lights off and the computers on. They're the best-trained of medical professions and therefore seem to have Superman-like powers.
Before radiology (or "diagnostic imaging"), medical research could only go skin deep. More serious troubles required traditional cutting-and-sewing surgery, and those patients willing to sit still for investigative intrusions on their innards weren't exactly overjoyed at the opportunity.
Plus, when you cut someone open, there's always a chance that the body might respond, ahem, negatively. Radiation allowed for less invasive imaging and more patients surviving long enough to pay their bills (it's all about that bottom line).
And the bottom line is really good for radiologists—like, really good. The average salary for these specialists is around $375,000 per year, and for the most experienced that number can stretch up to close to half a million (source).
Today, a doctor who wants to check out a suspicious region (and we're not talking about a compound in North Korea) can summon a radiologist, who puts those superpowers to good use by taking a few images of the suspicious (body) region and retreating to their dark rooms to analyze them.
The radiologist (or one of their radiology technicians) takes pictures using radiation—the same stuff Homer Simpson is supposed to be watching over at the Springfield Power Plant. The oldest radiological method used to see through flesh is the X-ray; in hospitals, they're still the go-to for looking at injuries like broken bones, diseases like pneumonia, and miscellaneous swollen bits, obstructions, and abnormalities of the skeleton or organs.
Different forms of radiation are used to take more detailed pictures of patients. MRIs, CAT scans, and PET scans are the most common. Other, less common, tools include a flashlight, a meat slicer, and a magnifying glass. Just kidding—if you meet a radiologist who's planning to use those tools, call the police.
You can spot a radiologist in the wild by looking for a larger-than-normal head. Okay, not really, but radiologists do need more schooling than other doctors (who already need a lot of schooling), and they have to keep up with developments in software, hardware, and research in cutting-edge techniques. Really, you'd think their heads would be larger than usual. But what do we know? We're not doctors.
A good radiologist can identify—just from a picture—all the normal, healthy states of bones in the skeleton, nerves in the nervous system, internal organs, muscles, tissues, and the thousand other pieces of our complicated bodies. Oh, and they also can recognize everything that could go wrong with each of those systems.
Radiologists also need to be on call all the time.
Patients need to know their test results fairly quickly if the doctor suspects something like cancer; and little Jimmy in the ER needs to know if his shoulder, which he injured jumping off the garage roof, will prevent him from playing baseball this weekend. (It's not like we didn't warn him; you'd think it wouldn't be hard for a kid to not jump off the roof, but little Jimmy just couldn't handle that responsibility.)
Radiology is great for doctors who are looking to limit their interactions with those pesky patients. They'll need to speak with them, but usually only for long enough to take some pictures. If anything comes up in the images, there's usually a different doctor (an oncologist, for example, if a test for cancer comes back positive) who'll be the primary caretaker for the patient.
That said, it's not easy to tell patients that you've actually found something in the pictures, and sometimes that news might have to come straight from you, the radiologist.
There's a lot of fuss in the medical industry these days about the costs of testing—how much is necessary for the situation at hand? Radiologists probably cringe when they hear politicians and insurance companies talk about "unnecessary tests," but the fact is their imaging equipment is expensive to use.
No matter how many lives are saved by early detection (that's right, you're an early detective), every time a doctor orders a test, some insurance company will be scanning those expenses with a fine-toothed magnifying glass of their own.
Despite the costs, you'll be required to perform a minimum number of exams each year to remain certified. Radiologists who deal primarily with mammograms, for example, must view at least 450 screens per year. So be prepared for the ups and downs of an industry that's on the cutting-edge of disease-curing, but also on the budgetary chopping block.
Radiologists are definitely experts at imaging your insides and interpreting the results, but growing databases of images are critical developments in the fight to cure diseases like cancer.
Radiologists depend on this library to narrow down their search results; past results from other radiologists are hugely helpful in answering, "What's that cloudy splotch on that lung X-ray?" or, "Is it normal to have a house key-like object in the intestines?"
No matter which radiological specialty entices you, working in this field really will be like getting to use superpowers every day. Radiologists are hugely important in hospitals, so if you think you have what it takes, read on to find out how to start taking pictures of peoples' insides.