Medical License

Syndie Smith, a radiological technologist, prepares an X-ray machine for a patient at Advanced Imaging in Oxford. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)

Norman Bolus would take almost any level of state regulation for medical imaging and radiation therapy professionals at this point.

“There’s more regulation for hairdressers in this state than there are for people in radiology,” said Bolus, director of the nuclear medicine technology program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Bolus could soon get what he wants.

An Alabama lawmaker recently filed a bill to require state licensing of people who operate imaging equipment, from X-ray machines to MRIs. Alabama is one of four states with no licensing requirements for such professionals, according to the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, the national professional association for medical imaging and radiation therapy. Some health experts welcome the proposed regulations, saying they will help strengthen the profession and improve patient protection from machines that can kill if used improperly.

Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, introduced the bill earlier this month. If approved, it would establish a board to oversee and license professionals who use medical imaging equipment and machines that use radiation to treat cancer.

“They seem to be one of the only major health providers that doesn’t have a board and regulations,” Dial said. “I think the bill is eventually going to happen.”

According to ASRT, Alabama, Nevada, Idaho and Missouri are the only states, along with the District of Columbia, with no regulatory board and licensing for the medical imaging and radiation therapy professions.

Meanwhile, medical imaging is a growing field.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there were 241,700 jobs in the U.S. for the radiologic and MRI technologists fields, with median pay of $58,960 a year. The agency projects the number of those jobs will grow 12 percent by 2026. People working in the field typically need a two-year college degree, the BLS said.

Christine Lung, director of government relations for ASRT, said her organization supports the Alabama bill and others like it around the country. Lung said there is national accreditation that facilities such as hospitals can earn for their medical imaging equipment, but not for the people who use those devices.

“There are no federal regulations dealing with imaging technologists,” Lung said. “Professional licensing standards are typically done on the state level.”

In a Monday phone text message to The Star, Louis Bass, CEO of Regional Medical Center in Anniston, wrote that the hospital currently follows all regulations on the federal level and accreditation requirements from the American College of Radiology and other agencies for equipment and staff.

Lung said licensing is another step to help protect patients.

“Radiologic technologists use ionizing radiation, which has been demonstrated to cause cancer,” Lung said. “Technologists must be specifically educated and certified to give quality diagnoses.”

Bolus said that in Alabama, a physician with imaging equipment at his office could theoretically pull someone in off the street and train him or her the basics of using the devices.

“That’s not to say they would ... but there’s nothing in the state right now to prevent it,” he said.

Bolus said a licensing board would be an independent body to further certify that medical imaging operators have the proper education and skill to use their equipment.

Thomas Abernathy, director of imaging services at RMC, wrote in a Monday email to The Star that he had read the bill and thought it would be beneficial for professionals and patients.

“Requiring formalized training for those administering and operating diagnostic and therapeutic radiation is not only good for the safety of our patients, but it enhances the quality of care and services at RMC and other providers,” Abernathy wrote. “Additionally, it will align the state of Alabama with acceptable thresholds in the profession that other states have already established.”

Dr. Ken Hager, a radiologist and owner of Advancing Imaging, which has locations in Gadsden and Oxford, said he wasn’t opposed to the concept of a regulatory board, as long as the bureaucracy didn’t unduly burden the profession.

“I hope this bill comes from checking with what other states have done and using their best practices instead of trying to reinvent the wheel,” Hager said. “What you want is monitoring standards to protect patients without diminishing returns from bureaucracy.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.