What do Nuclear Medicine Technologists Do

Nuclear Medicine Technologists

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

Nuclear medicine technologists held about 18,300 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of nuclear medicine technologists were as follows:

  • Hospitals; state, local, and private - 70%
  • Offices of physicians - 14%
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories - 7%
  • Outpatient care centers - 3%

Technologists are on their feet for long periods and may need to lift or turn patients who are ill or injured.

Injuries and Illnesses

Although radiation hazards exist in this occupation, they are minimized by the use of gloves and other shielding devices. Nuclear medicine technologists wear badges that measure radiation levels in the radiation area. Instruments monitor their radiation exposure and detailed records are kept on how much radiation they get over their lifetime. When preparing radioactive drugs, technologists use safety procedures to minimize radiation exposure to patients, other healthcare workers, and themselves.

Like other healthcare workers, nuclear medicine technologists may be exposed to infectious diseases.

Work Schedules

Most nuclear medicine technologists work full time. Some nuclear medicine technologists work irregular hours, such as evenings or weekends. They also may be on call, especially if they work in hospitals.

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

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

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.

How to Advance

Technologists may advance to supervisory positions or to chief technologist with significant work experience. With advanced education, it is possible for some technologists to become department administrators or directors.

Some technologists specialize in clinical areas, such as nuclear cardiology or PET scanning. Some become instructors in, or directors of, nuclear medicine technology programs, a step that usually requires a bachelor's or master's degree in the subject. Others may leave the occupation to work as sales or training representatives for medical equipment or radiopharmaceutical manufacturing firms; some become radiation safety officers in regulatory agencies or hospitals.

Job Outlook

Employment of nuclear medicine technologists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 1,500 openings for nuclear medicine technologists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


An aging population may lead to the need for nuclear medicine technologists who can provide imaging to patients with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease, or treatments for cancers and other diseases. In addition, technological advancements may increase the types of imaging and treatments that nuclear medicine technologists provide, leading to increased demand for their services.


The median annual wage for nuclear medicine technologists was $78,760 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $60,550, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $105,530.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for nuclear medicine technologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Outpatient care centers - $125,920
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories - $79,970
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private - $78,670
  • Offices of physicians - $78,140

Most nuclear medicine technologists work full time. Some nuclear medicine technologists work irregular hours, such as evenings or weekends. They also may be on call, especially if they work in hospitals.

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