Nuclear medicine technologists prepare and administer chemicals known as radiopharmaceuticals (radioactive drugs) used in the diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases. These drugs are administered to a patient and absorbed by specific locations in the patient’s body, thus allowing technologists to use diagnostic equipment to image and analyze their concentration in certain tissues or organs. Technicians also perform laboratory tests on patients’ blood and urine to determine certain body chemical levels. There are approximately 18,000 nuclear medicine technologists employed in the United States.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Career History
The origins of nuclear medicine can be traced to the turn of the 20th century when Marie Curie and her fellow scientists discovered radium. Radium, however, had no medical application until after World War II, when scientists discovered ways of producing artificial radionuclides. This led to the development of nuclear medicine.
In nuclear medicine, an image is transmitted that enables the physician to diagnose diseased tissue and functional disorders. Unlike X-rays, however, where the radiation passes through the body to expose photographic film, in nuclear medicine the radiation comes from radioactive isotopes inside the body. A compound is made radioactive (called a radiopharmaceutical) and then is injected into or swallowed by the patient. The rates of absorption and elimination can be determined by measuring the radiation over a period of time with special cameras. This information is then used in the diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases, such as a dysfunctional thyroid gland or cancer.
All forms of radiation are potentially harmful, but carefully controlled and precisely directed doses of radiation are used with great success. Professional technologists are educated in the use of nuclear medicine, which has dramatically changed health care.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Job Description
Nuclear medicine technologists work directly with patients, preparing and administering radioactive drugs. All work is supervised by a physician. Because of the nature of radioactive material, the drug preparation requires adherence to strict safety precautions. All safety procedures are overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
After administering the drug to the patient, the technologist operates a gamma scintillation camera that takes pictures of the radioactive drug as it passes through or accumulates in parts of the patient’s body. These images are then displayed on a computer screen, where the technologist and physician can examine them. The images can be used to diagnose diseases or disorders in such organs as the heart, brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones. Nuclear medicine is also used for therapeutic purposes, such as to destroy abnormal thyroid tissue or ease the pain of a terminally ill patient.
Nuclear medicine technologists also have administrative duties. They must document the procedures performed, check all diagnostic equipment and record its use and maintenance, and keep track of the radioactive drugs administered. Laboratory testing of a patient’s body specimens, such as blood or urine, may also be performed by these technologists. In addition, they provide the attending physician with up-to-date medical records for his or her review.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Career Requirements
To prepare for this work, you should take plenty of high school classes in math and science, including algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, and physics. If your school offers anatomy classes, take those as well. Health courses may also be beneficial. Because using technology will be a large part of this work, be sure to take computer science classes. Also, because you will have considerable interaction with patients as well as other health care professionals, take English courses to improve your communication skills.
There are several ways to become a nuclear medicine technologist. You can complete at minimum a two-year certificate program, a two-year associate’s degree program, or a four-year bachelor’s degree program in nuclear medicine technology. Professional training is available at some colleges as part of a bachelor’s or associate’s program, and it ranges from two to four years in length. Some hospitals and technical schools also offer certificate training programs. Whatever program you decide to attend, make sure it is accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT). Information on accredited programs is available at the JRCNMT Web site, http://jrcnmt.org/. There are 100 accredited training programs in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Some educational programs are designed for individuals who already have a background in a related health care field, such as radiologic technology, sonography, or nursing. These programs are usually one year in length. A good knowledge of anatomy and physiology is helpful. Course work in nuclear medicine technologist programs includes radiation biology and protection, radioactivity and instrumentation, radiopharmaceuticals and their use on patients, and therapeutic nuclear medicine.
Certification or Licensing
Nuclear medicine technologists must know the minimum federal standards for use and administration of nuclear drugs and equipment. Thirty-five states now require technologists to be licensed. Certification or registration are also available through the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). Many nuclear medicine technologist positions, especially those in hospitals, are open only to certified or registered technologists. Information on becoming registered or certified is available from the ARRT and the NMTCB. (See the end of this article for contact information.)
Those interested in a nuclear medicine technology career should have a strong sense of teamwork, compassion for others, and self-motivation.
Exploring Nuclear Medicine Technologist Career
Individuals cannot get hands-on experience without the necessary qualifications. However, it is possible to become familiar with the job responsibilities by talking with practicing nuclear medicine technologists or teachers involved in the field. In addition, volunteer experience at local hospitals or nursing homes provides a good introduction to what it is like to work in a health care setting.
There are approximately 18,000 nuclear medicine technologists in the United States, with most employed by hospitals. Nuclear medicine technologists are employed at health clinics, nuclear medical equipment development facilities, research facilities, and private laboratories.
Graduates of specialized training programs and two- and four-year programs usually receive placement assistance from their educational institutions, which have a vested interest in placing as many graduates as possible. Help wanted ads in local papers and professional journals are also good sources of job leads, as is participation in professional organizations, which gives members opportunities to network.
Growth in the field of nuclear medicine should lead to advancement opportunities. Advancement usually takes the form of promotion to a supervisory position, with a corresponding increase in pay and responsibilities. Due to increased competition for positions in large metropolitan hospitals, technologists who work at these institutions may need to transfer to another hospital or city to secure a promotion. Hospitals in rural areas have much less competition for positions and therefore are more likely to give promotions.
Promotions, which are more easily attained by earning a bachelor’s degree, are normally to positions of supervisor, chief technologist, or nuclear medicine department administrator. Some technologists may advance by leaving clinical practice to teach or work with equipment development and sales.
Naturally, individual earnings vary based on factors such as a person’s level of education and experience. Also, those who work overtime and on-call can add to their yearly income. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual salary for all nuclear medicine technologists was $58,060 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent of technologists earned less than $43,220 annually, and the highest paid 10 percent made more than $79,780 per year. Technologists who worked in general medical and surgical hospitals had median earnings of $57,480. Typical benefits for hospital workers include health insurance, paid vacations and sick leave, and pension plans.
Nuclear medicine technologists usually set their own schedules and can expect to work 35 to 40 hours a week, although larger hospitals often require overtime. Night and weekend work can also be expected. Because the job usually takes place inside a hospital or other health care facility, the environment is always clean and well lighted. The placing or positioning of patients on the diagnostic equipment is sometimes required, so a basic physical fitness level is necessary. There is a small chance of low-level contamination from the radioactive material or from the handling of body fluids. Strict safety precautions, including the use of shielded syringes and gloves and the wearing of badges that measure radiation, greatly reduce the risk of contamination.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of nuclear medicine technologists should grow faster than the average through 2014. According to a 2005 report by the Society of Nuclear Medicine, 18.4 million nuclear imaging and therapeutic procedures were performed in 7,000 U.S. hospital and non-hospital provider sites in 2002, up from 16.9 procedures in 2001. Advances in medical diagnostic procedures could lead to increased use of nuclear medicine technology in the diagnosis and treatment of more diseases, including cancer treatment and cardiology. In addition, as the country’s population ages there will be a growing number of middle-aged and older persons, who are the main users of diagnostic tests. A growing population using these tests will create a demand for more professionals to administer the procedures. Most new job opportunities are expected to be in areas with large hospitals.