MRI technicians operate a magnetic resonance imaging machine, which creates detailed two- and three-dimensional images along any axis or plane of a patient's body. This is accomplished through a combination of very intense magnetic fields -- up to four times the strength of the earth's magnetic field -- radio pulses, and sophisticated computers. While it is possible to get detailed images of blood vessels, internal organs or soft tissues through a combination of radioactive dyes and fluoroscopy -- an X-ray "movie" of sorts -- MRI scans still provide the highest-quality and detailed imaging available without the risks posed by ionizing radiation.
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MRI Technician Job Description
MRI technicians are required to have a thorough understanding of their diagnostic imaging equipment as well as patience and compassion for their patients, as an MRI scan can take up to 90 minutes to complete and the patient must sit perfectly still during the scan or an image can be distorted. MRI's are notorious for bringing on anxiety and claustrophobia in patients. Your ability to keep patients at ease before, during, and after the procedure can be of great importance.
The machine is also noisy. During an MRI, a loud noise is created as electricity, which powers the electromagnets, pulses through super-cooled wires - -269.1 degrees Celsius - that are bathed in liquid helium. Patients may be permitted headphones or earplugs during this time if the machine allows. It may be difficult to give instructions to patients at this time or to hear requests from patients
While the magnetic field itself is not harmful to humans, it can be powerful enough to pull ferromagnetic metals into the magnetic field -- metals in such objects as wheelchairs, air tanks and firearms (NYT, 2005). As an MRI tech, you are responsible for enforcing magnetic field safety and ensuring the best possible comfort of the patient without compromising safety or image quality.
While MRI technicians may be responsible for maintaining the machine, they are not responsible for repairing the machine if it happens to break. The danger posed by the high voltage and liquid helium require a medical equipment repair technician to conduct the repairs.
A typical MRI Technician can expect to perform the following:
- Prepare patient for the imaging process, which can include taking a medical history.
- Adjust the equipment for the needed scan.
- Properly position patients on the MRI machine to get the correct images; which can include lifting or moving disabled patients.
- Obtain the precise images the radiologist ordered, repeating the process if necessary.
- Record the images for viewing by the physician while following proper medical records documentation.
- Work with radiologist to determine if additional images need to be taken.
- Enforce safety precautions at all times.
MRI technicians may also be responsible for conducting follow-up procedures or working with radiologists to diagnose a problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012), MRI technicians can expect to work full time; some may work nights or, as emergencies can occur, be on call.
Becoming an MRI Technician
To become an MRI technician, you begin by completing a radiology technician program in MRI technology. However, many states require MRI technicians to be licensed - requirements vary by state - and, according to the BLS (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012), most states require MRI technicians to have passed a certification exam offered by the state or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologist (ARRT). In all states that require licensure, MRI technicians are required to maintain their license by continuing their education.
To be able to sit for the ARRT exam, the ARRT requires candidates complete an approved training program and, starting in 2015, have earned at least an associate degree in any field. The degree does not need to be in radiology or radiologic technology. The ARRT provides a list of approved programs in radiological technology.
A Typical MRI Certificate Curriculum
Radiological technology programs can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete. Many radiological technology programs include the following subjects, in addition to the specific training required to operate an MRI machine:
- Patient care
- Radiation protection and safety
- Image evaluation
- Medical documentation
There are also degree programs available in radiological technology, ranging from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree. In addition to the in-class curriculum, programs either include training in real-life situations with an experienced MRI technicians or require practical work experience prior to enrollment. According to the BLS (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012), beneficial courses to take can include science, mathematics, biology, physiology and chemistry. The BLS has also identified the following qualities that can be beneficial for radiological technicians, including MRI technicians (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012):
- Detail oriented
- Interpersonal skills
- Science and mathematical skills
- Technical skills
Where the Jobs Are for MRI Technicians
According to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MRI technicians -- in addition to all other radiological technicians -- are expected to witness an employment opportunity growth of up to 28 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020 (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). This projected growth can be attributed to an expected increase in imaging needs for an aging baby boomer population. While the costs associated with an MRI scan can be cost-prohibitive - for the patients or the clinic - and the cramped, noisy conditions of the scan can deter patients (NYT, 2001) from seeking MRI scans, advances in technology should make the process more accessible.
As of May 2011, radiological technicians and technologists were reported to have made an annual median wage of up to $55,120 nationally, with the top 10 percent earning $77,760 and the lowest 10 percent earning $37,360 (BLS.gov/oes, 2011). According to the BLS, the top-paying industries for the occupation included scientific research and development services and colleges, universities and professional schools. Most radiological technicians were employed at general medical and surgical hospitals.
Visit our MRI Technician Salary page to get a detailed look at salaries for MRI techs, including the average salary in major metropolitan areas. You can also see how the salary for MRI techs compares to other radiology professions, as well as other jobs in allied health.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Fluoroscopy - http://www.fda.gov/radiation-emittingproducts/radiationemittingproductsandprocedures/medicalimaging/medicalx-rays/ucm115354.htm
National High Magnet Field Laboratory, MRI: a guided tour - http://www.magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/magnetacademy/mri/
HowStuffWorks.com, How MRI works - http://science.howstuffworks.com/mri1.htm
Donald G. McNeil Jr., M.R.I.'s Strong Magnets Cited in Accidents, The New York Times, August 19, 2005 - http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/19/health/19magnet.html?_r=1&
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Radiologic Technologists - http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/radiologic-technologists.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011, Radiologic Technologists - http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292037.htm
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Certification - https://www.arrt.org/Certification/Magnetic-Resonance-Imaging
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, Academic Degree Requirements - https://www.arrt.org/Certification/Academic-Degree-Requirement
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, ARRT Recognized Educational Programs - https://www.arrt.org/Education/Educational-Programs/Magnetic-Resonance-Imaging
David Kirby, Patients Embrace New Generation of Imaging Machines, The New York Times, May 08, 2001 - http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/08/health/patients-embrace-new-generation-of-imaging-machines.html