Radiographers hold the key to the treatment of some of the most serious diseases

Female radiographers are well used to being referred to as "X-ray nurses" or "ultrasound assistants" by patients in the NHS. Male radiographers, on the other hand, are all too often assumed to be doctors. In fact, despite much of the general public not realising that radiographers are a group of highly-qualified health specialists in their own right, radiography is central to modern healthcare.

There are two types of radiographers – diagnostic and therapeutic. The former employ a range of imaging techniques and sophisticated equipment to produce high-quality images of an injury or disease. Once they've taken the images, they'll often report on them so that the correcttreatment can be given. While the best known techniques are X-rays, ultrasound, MRI and CT scans, there are others too – fluoroscopy captures images of the digestive system, providing a live motion X-ray; nuclear medicine uses radioactive tracers, which can be administered to examine how the body and organs (for example the kidneys or heart) function, and angiography investigates blood vessels.

"There is something deeply satisfying about producing an image – having this immediate sign that you've done a good job," says Christina Freeman, who practised as a diagnostic radiographer for many years before becoming a professional officer for the Society of Radiographers. "There aren't many jobs where you get that instant feedback. The other big reward of the role for me is that you often see people in pain and your work produces an image that will very often get them the diagnosis they need to get better. Much more so than in the past, today's radiographers get to take that image further along the diagnostic path."

Depending on their specific role, radiographers will see anywhere between three to 50 patients a day, most of whom they're unlikely to see again. "In some ways, that's frustrating because you can't really get to know the patient. But on the other hand, if they don't come back, it means your patient has probably got well again, which is obviously a good thing," says Freeman.

For those who like the idea of building up more of a relationship with patients, therapeutic radiography may have more appeal. As the only health professionals qualified to plan and deliver radiotherapy, they play a vital role in the treatment of cancer. They manage the patient pathway through the many radiotherapy processes, providing care and support for patients throughout their treatment.

"These roles tend to be confined to hospitals in bigger towns and cities," points out Freeman. "But those who do it speak of really liking getting to know the patient, explaining to them what's involved, providing support and monitoring progress – as well as planning and delivering the treatment itself."

With six out of 10 patients who receive radiotherapy now being cured, radiotherapists increasingly get the satisfaction of sending the cancer into remission.

Regardless of which type of radiography people work in, they tend to be attracted to the balance of hands-on care of patients with the use of innovative technology. "It's why you'll need to be unafraid of science and have a certain maturity," she says. "That maturity has nothing to do with age, but with being intuitive enough to support the patient, and often their family, through the process."

Radiographers also enjoy being a core part of a multidisciplinary team, working closely with doctors, physicists and nurses, among others. Then there's the ability to use very expensive bits of kit. Indeed, there has been crucial investment in improving the quality of equipment used by radiographers in recent years. Many people like the options to specialise, too – for example, in working with children.

To train, you'll need to undertake a BSc degree in either diagnostic or therapeutic radiography. Tuition fees are paid for, which is a big pull for students, but be sure to do some homework about the course and indeed the role first, says Freeman. All too many heads of courses say numerous students come in not really understanding what they have applied for and they get a hell of a shock when they realise how demanding the course is. "Whereas other students might have 12 hours of lectures a week, radiography students have a high academic input and clinical input. When you're in your clinical placements, you'll often be expected to work nine to five," she says.

Once you're qualified, there are plenty of opportunities for further study. Sarah Griffiths, advanced practitioner in radiotherapy at Bristol Hospital, is currently studying for a Masters and has also just qualified as a supplementary prescriber. "It means that, to a certain extent, I can prescribe medication similarly to a doctor, which adds another aspect to my role," she says.

Griffiths initially wanted to become a marine biologist. "But I failed my chemistry A-level and felt stuck. My sister saw an advert for radiography qualifications in the paper. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that there were people specially trained in taking X-rays or radiotherapy."

Today, Griffiths' job is split in two. "For three days a week, I work on the treatment unit, working with patients, managing a team and ensuring quality assurance. Then, on Thursdays and Fridays, I'm the department's review radiographer, which means I see certain patients to manage their treatment side-effects and I make sure they have any medication they need. I also deal with some of the psychosocial issues that surround their treatment. Some patients, for instance, may need to be referred to a counsellor."

There is also the option of becoming an assistant practitioner. Elizabeth Grimwood was working on an NHS switchboard when she saw an advert to become a trainee assistant practitioner in mammography at West Suffolk Hospital. "I am studying for a certificate of higher education alongside working in the hospital where I meet and greet women that come to have basic breast screening and mammograms," she says. "I've had a lot of jobs which claim to be about communication, but most of it's on the phone. This is about face-to-face interaction and about benefiting people's health, which is a fantastic combination."

Grimwood says that she still gets called a "mammogram nurse" in error, there's no doubting how appreciative the patients are of what she does.

For more information on courses and careers in radiography, visit the Society of Radiographers' website,

'I wanted something more technical than nursing'

Helen Taylor is a therapy radiographer at the Royal Marsden.

I always knew I wanted to work in a hospital but I wanted something more focused and technical than nursing, so when I found out about radiography from a careers adviser, it seemed perfect.

I really enjoyed the training. You spend some time in the classroom and some time practising the skills you're learning and you get to work with some very experienced staff.

Once qualified, I managed to move up through the grades quite quickly and even got to spend some time working in Germany. That's one of the benefits of this career – the qualification is internationally recognised. In fact, other countries are crying out for British-trained radiographers and many people take their skills to places such as Australia.

Today, my role involves a lot of management, so staff come to me if they have a query or problem. I'm also responsible for a lot of the training in new software, equipment and techniques. Then there's the audit meetings, which involve us keeping on top of all new patients coming to start treatment – and I work directly with patients too.

We're lucky at this hospital, because of all the new developments. For instance, we are now working with IMRT (intensity modulated radiotherapy). The conventional technique is to give the patient a very even dose, but with this you're trying to give certain bits of the patient a higher dose than others. This enables us to treat more complex things such as tumours that have wrapped themselves round a spinal cord. It's about getting to the more strange shaped and interesting tumours. It gives both us and the patient a lot more options than in the past.