Radiology is the medical specialty devoted to creating images of the inside of the human body. To do this, radiologists uses a variety of energy sources, including x-rays, ultrasound, magnetic resonance, nuclear, and others.

Unlike doctors who look inside the body with scopes during surgical procedures, and actually see internal structures, radiologists use high-tech equipment to look into the body indirectly from outside—in black and white images. The goal of radiology is to detect internal problems, causing little harm and pain, before the condition becomes too serious.

Radiology, which began as a fascinating medical curiosity after the discovery of x-rays by Roentgen at the end of the 19th century, has exploded into an ever-expanding box of tools for "dismantling" the human body while it remains intact.

Radiology - Masterfile Image

Before the advent of radiology, it was only upon a patient's death that the internal organs could be studied. Doctors could examine the outside of the body, prod and listen to internal organs and tissues, and look at the various outputs of the body, but the internal structures were mostly hidden. In its relatively brief history, the field of radiology has come a very long way in solving riddles regarding body function.

Radiology now occupies a pivotal position in health care. A lot of the guesswork and mystery about what goes on inside the body has been eliminated. The basic tenet of the field has not changed since Roentgen looked at an x-ray of his wife's hand. Film interpretation is still at the foundation of radiology, but today, there is much more to the field.

Another important function of radiology is providing consultation to other physicians. Before the invention of radiological tests other than x-ray, most physicians who cared directly for patients (e.g., primary care physicians—"PCPs") understood which specific studies were required for each condition.

For example, an upper GI series was performed on a patient thought to have an ulcer. However, when CT scan, ultrasound, MRI scan, nuclear medicine, and other tests came on the scene, the primary care physician was overwhelmed with tests and a need for the radiology specialist—the radiologist—came about.

The primary care doctor's time is better spent caring for the patient, taking a comprehensive medical history, performing a complete physical exam, and spending extra time talking with the patient. PCPs are able to call the radiology department and consult with a doctor who knows exactly what all the diagnostic tests do and which test is needed for each symptom or finding. Today, most general practitioners, internists, and pediatricians routinely consult with radiologists.

There is another aspect of radiology that is often underestimated and undervalued: radiologists are doctors first, then radiologists. In the past, radiologists spent much of their time sitting in dark rooms all day reading x-rays with little patient contact. PCPs ordered the tests; radiologists interpreted the films. As the field of radiology became increasingly complex and invasive, radiologists began administering dyes intravenously, inserting catheters and balloons into arteries and needles into organs, and interacting with patients face to face.

The radiology department developed into an organization that provides competent image taking, interpretation, and consultation, and at the same time protects the health and rights of patients. This is the compassionate side of radiology. Most radiology departments recognize that patients often are frightened, uncomfortable, and in serious pain, and some of them are terminally ill.

Even relatively healthy patients may need help getting through routine medical tests, such as barium enema. That is the essence of radiology's third function: providing compassionate care. It is the responsibility of all those who work in the radiology department, including the technologists, clerks, receptionists, nurses, and radiologists, to see to it that the work they do is competent and is done with compassion and sensitivity.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 May 2000

Last Modified: 23 Mar 2015