What Is Interventional Radiology?

Interventional radiology is a rapidly growing area of medicine. Interventional radiologists are physicians who specialize in minimally invasive, targeted treatments performed using imaging guidance. Interventional radiology procedures often replace open surgical procedures. They are generally easier for the patient because they involve no large incisions, less risk, less pain and shorter recovery times.

Interventional radiologists (IRs) use their expertise in reading X-rays, ultrasound and other medical images to guide small instruments such as catheters (tubes that measure just a few millimeters in diameter) through the blood vessels or other pathways to treat disease percutaneously (through the skin). These procedures are typically much less invasive and much less costly than traditional surgery.

Who are interventional radiologists?

Interventional radiologists are medical doctors who have specialized in doing medical procedures that involve radiology. Radiologists use imaging equipment such as X-rays, magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, ultrasound and computed tomography (CT) to diagnose disease. IRs are board-certified radiologists who are fellowship trained in percutaneous interventions using guided imaging. Their specialized training is certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

How did interventional radiology develop?

The improved ability of radiologists to see inside the body gave rise to interventional radiology – minimally invasive targeted treatments performed using imaging for guidance – in the mid-1970s. Interventional radiologists invented angioplasty and the first catheter-delivered stent, which was first used in the legs, to save patients with vascular disease from amputation or other surgery. These advances pioneered modern medicine and gave rise to the state-of-the-art treatments that are commonplace today. Interventional radiology is a medical specialty recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties and the American Medical Association.

Today there are more than 5,000 interventional radiologists in the United States. The Society of Interventional Radiology (SIR), the professional association of interventional radiologists based in Fairfax, Va., has seen its membership steadily increase to more than 4,000 worldwide in 2004.

What are the advantages of interventional radiology?
  • Most procedures can be performed on an outpatient basis or require only a short hospital stay.
  • General anesthesia usually is not required.
  • Risk, pain and recovery time are often significantly reduced.
  • The procedures are sometimes less expensive than surgery or other alternatives.

Reprinted with permission of the Society of Interventional Radiology © 2004, www.SIRweb.org. All rights reserved.