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Nuclear Medicine Technologists

What is a Nuclear Medicine Technologist? A nuclear medicine technologist helps diagnose and monitor diseases by taking scans of the interior structures of a patient’s body. They prepare and administer radioactive compounds that, when ingested, differentiate abnormal areas from normal structures in the body.

What a Nuclear Medicine Technologist Does As a nuclear medicine technologist, you may be required to perform some or all of the following duties:

  • Explain medical procedures and technology to patients
  • Prepare radioactive compounds to be used for the procedure
  • Monitor patient reaction and health status during scanning
  • Create images of the interior structures of the body; work with other medical staff to ensure the correct images are obtained
  • Protect patients and medical staff from exposure to radiation by following safety policies and procedures
  • Maintain medical tools and machines to ensure proper functioning
  • Maintain patient records

Radiopharmaceuticals are medications that emit radiation. Scanners specially designed to detect this type of radiation are used to capture images of tissues and organs. Higher-than- or lower-than-expected concentrations of the medication typically highlight abnormal structures or atypical organ function. While it is the job of a nuclear medicine technologist to take these images, interpretation of the scans are left up to a specially-trained physician.

Nuclear medicine technologists may specialize in a number of areas including:

  • Nuclear cardiology (NCT): Taking images of the heart
  • Positron emission tomography (PET): Creating 3-D images of the body part
  • Computed tomography (CT): A computer is used to turn the x-rayed images into a 3-D model of the body part
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Uses a magnetic field to produce interior images of the body

Where do Nuclear Medicine Technologists Work?

In 2010, approximately 21,900 people were employed as nuclear medicine technologists. People in this field are required to stand for long periods of time and physically assist disabled patients. The majority of professionals in this field worked in state, local, or private hospitals (63%). The second-largest employer was physicians (25%). People in this field also worked in outpatient care centers and laboratories.

In addition to being exposed to infectious agents, nuclear medicine technologists are also subjected to radiation exposure. However, this hazard can be mitigated by closely following safety procedures and wearing protective clothing such as gloves when handing radioactive material. People in this profession are typically required to record their radiation exposure to monitor how much they come in contact with over their lifetimes.

Nuclear medicine technologist generally work full time and may be required to work on weekends, evenings, and be on call due to the nature of the work.

How to Start a Career as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist

Formal education and clinical training is required to enter this career field. Most employers prefer people who have degrees in nuclear medicine technology but may accept other degrees if the programs provide similar education and training (e.g. radiologic technology). In general, you can get a job with an associate’s degree in nuclear medicine technology which can be obtained from junior, vocational, or technical colleges. These programs can often be completed within a year. Bachelor’s degree programs are also available that take 3 to 4 years to earn. Some hospitals also offer certificate programs, but these are usually reserved for people that already have some medical training (e.g. nurses).

Clinical training is required in all nuclear medicine technology programs. Typically, students gain hands-on experience while under the supervision of a certified nuclear technologist and/or doctor who specializes in nuclear medicine. Classes you can expect to take as part of a formal education program include anatomy, physics, computer science, physiology, chemistry, and radioactive medications. Read more on how to become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist here.

Licensing and Certification

Several states require nuclear medicine technologists to be licensed, the requirements for which vary state by state. It is best to contact the local health board for more information about licensing in your area. Although not required, many employers like to hire people have obtained certification. As a bonus, many of the certification requirements also satisfy licensing requirements. Otherwise, states usually have applicants take a test to determine their levels of knowledge and skills.

Obtaining a certification generally requires completion of an accredited program, working a number of clinical hours, and passing an exam. In addition to standard certifications, professionals in the field can earn credentials in specialty areas such as nuclear cardiology (NCT), positron emission tomography (PET), computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Those interested in earning these credentials should visit the websites of the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board or American Registry (NMTCB) of Radiologic Technologists (AART).

Continuing education is required to maintain credentials, especially since the technology used in the profession constantly changes.

Qualities a Nuclear Medicine Technologist Should Have

To be successful in this field, there are a number of qualities you should possess:

Detail oriented: Since you are dealing with a hazardous substance, it is critical that you are able to follow directions and instructions to ensure the correct dose is given and the right images are taken.

Interpersonal skills: A major part of your job will involve talking to patients, explaining the procedure to them, and answering questions. You must be able to give clear instruction to ensure the procedure goes as smoothly as possible. Additionally, patients will be under physical, mental, and emotional duress, and you will need to keep them calm.

Aptitude for science, math, and technology: Nuclear medicine is a highly technical field. You must have an affinity for math and science to calculate the correct dosage, operate computers, and handle other assorted pieces of technical equipment.

Strength and stamina: People in this profession stand for long periods of time. They are also required to lift and move patients that have difficulty moving themselves.

Salary

On average, nuclear medicine technologists earned $68,560 per year in 2010. The top 10% earned $91,970 and the bottom 10% made $49,130 annually. Opportunities for overtime pay are generally available especially in areas where there is a shortage of talented people in this field. Read more about the salary here

Nuclear Medicine Technologist Job Outlook

The job outlook for this career field is good. Job opportunities are expected to increase 19% between 2010 and 2020. This growth is primarily fueled by an aging population and an associated increase in the need to diagnose and treat medical problems that require internal images such as cancer and heart disease. Physician offices and diagnostic laboratories offering additional or specialized services are also drivers behind the increased need for nuclear medicine technologists.

Nuclear medicine technology is a highly specialized field. Those with relevant education, experience, and specialty certifications will enjoy the best opportunities in the industry.