Nuclear Medicine Technologists - What They Do

Diagnostic imaging embraces several procedures that aid in diagnosing ailments, the most familiar imaging being the x ray. In nuclear medicine, radionuclides—unstable atoms that emit radiation spontaneously—are used to diagnose and treat disease. Radionuclides are purified and compounded to form radiopharmaceuticals. Nuclear medicine technologists administer radiopharmaceuticals to patients and then monitor the characteristics and functions of tissues or organs in which the drugs localize. Abnormal areas show higher-than-expected or lower-than-expected concentrations of radioactivity. Nuclear medicine differs from other diagnostic imaging technologies because it determines the presence of disease on the basis of metabolic changes, rather than changes in organ structure.

Nuclear medicine technologists operate cameras that detect and map the radioactive drug in a patient's body to create diagnostic images. After explaining test procedures to patients, technologists prepare a dosage of the radiopharmaceutical and administer it by mouth, injection, inhalation, or other means. They position patients and start a gamma scintillation camera, or “scanner,” which creates images of the distribution of a radiopharmaceutical as it localizes in and emits signals from the patient's body. The images are produced on a computer screen or on film for a physician to interpret.

When preparing radiopharmaceuticals, technologists adhere to safety standards that keep the chance of radiation exposure as low as possible to workers and patients. Technologists keep patient records and document the amount and type of radionuclides that they receive, use, and discard.

There are two areas of specialty for nuclear medicine technologists—nuclear cardiology and positron emission tomography (PET). Nuclear cardiology typically involves myocardial perfusion imaging, which, like most nuclear medicine, uses radiopharmaceuticals and cameras to image the body. Myocardial perfusion imaging, however, requires that patients perform exercise so the technologist can image the heart and blood flow. Technologists specializing in PET operate a special medical imaging device that produces a 3-D image of the body.

Work Environment

Physical stamina is important because nuclear medicine technologists are on their feet much of the day and may have to lift or turn disabled patients. In addition, technologists must operate complicated equipment that requires mechanical ability and manual dexterity.

Although the potential for radiation exposure exists in this field, it is minimized by the use of shielded syringes, gloves, and other protective devices and by adherence to strict radiation safety guidelines. The amount of radiation in a nuclear medicine procedure is comparable to that received during a diagnostic x ray procedure. Technologists also wear badges that measure radiation levels. Because of safety precautions, badge measurements rarely exceed established safety levels.

Nuclear medicine technologists generally work a 40-hour week. Some technologists also may have on-call hours, including evening or weekend hours, in departments that operate on an extended schedule. Opportunities for part-time and shift work also are available. Those employed by mobile imaging services may be required to travel to several locations.

Education & Training Required

Generally, certificate programs are offered in hospitals, associate degree programs in community colleges, and bachelor's degree programs in 4-year colleges and universities. Courses cover the physical sciences, biological effects of radiation exposure, radiation protection and procedures, the use of radiopharmaceuticals, imaging techniques, and computer applications.

One-year certificate programs are typically for health professionals who already possess an associate or bachelor’s degree—especially radiologic technologists and diagnostic medical sonographers—but who wish to specialize in nuclear medicine. The programs also attract medical technologists, registered nurses, and others who wish to change fields or specialize.

The Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology accredits associate and bachelor’s degree training programs in nuclear medicine technology. In 2008, there were more than 100 accredited programs available.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Requirements for licensure of nuclear medicine technologists vary from State to State, so it is important that aspiring technologists check the requirements of the State in which they plan to work. In 2008, 25 States licensed nuclear medicine technologists. In addition, many third-party payers require nuclear medicine technologists to be certified in order for the healthcare facility to receive reimbursement for imaging procedures.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Certification is voluntary but it has become the generally accepted standard for nuclear medicine technologists and those who employ them. Certification is available from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB). Some technologists receive certification from both agencies. ARRT and NMTCB have different eligibility requirements, but both require that workers pass a comprehensive exam to become certified.

In addition to the general certification requirements, certified technologists also must complete a certain number of continuing education hours to retain certification. Continuing education is required primarily because of the frequent technological and innovative changes in the field of nuclear medicine.

Technologists must have good communication skills to effectively interact with patients and their families and should be sensitive to patients' physical and psychological needs. Nuclear medicine technologists must be able to work independently as they may have little direct supervision. Technologists also need to be detailed-oriented and meticulous when performing procedures to assure that all regulations are being followed.

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Academic Programs of Interest

Pre-Medicine is a term used to describe a track an undergraduate student pursues prior to becoming a medical student. It refers to the activities that prepare an undergraduate student for medical school, such as pre-med coursework, volunteer activities, clinical experience, research, and the application process.

Most pre-medical students major in the natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, though this is not a requirement.... more