Nuclear medicine uses unstable atoms called radionuclides to diagnose ailments. These atoms emit radiation, and physicians can determine the presence of disease by monitoring their effects on organs.
Nuclear medicine technologists administer radiopharmaceuticals to patients, and then monitor the tissues and organs where the drugs localize. Their job duties include explaining test procedures to patients; administering radiopharmaceuticals by injection, orally, or through inhalation; positioning patients; and operating cameras that track radioactive drugs in the patient’s body to create diagnostic images.
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There are two specialty areas for nuclear medicine technologists. Nuclear cardiology typically involves myocardial perfusion imaging, which requires patients to perform exercise during testing. Positron emission tomography (PET) specialists operate an imaging device that produces a 3-D image of the patient’s body.
Nuclear Medicine Technologists Job Summary
- Keen competition is expected for most positions in this field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- Typically, programs run from one to four years and lead to a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree.
- About 66% of technologists are employed by hospitals.
- Nuclear medicine technologists with training in multiple diagnostic methods or in nuclear cardiology should have the best job prospects.
Work Environment for Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Nuclear medicine technologists are on their feet much of the workday, so they must have physical stamina. They may also be required to lift and turn some patients. Technologists operate complicated medical equipment, so mechanical ability and good manual dexterity are essential for a successful nuclear medicine technologist career.
Preventing exposure to radiation through protective devices and strict adherence to safety guidelines are critically important in this field. Proper procedures keep radiation levels far below normal in most work environments. Following radiation safety guidelines and using shielded syringes, gloves, and other protective devices minimize risk.
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While nuclear medicine technologist jobs are usually 40 hours per week, some require weekend and on-call hours, since patients need care 24 hours a day. Nuclear medicine technologists might travel to areas lacking modern facilities with mobile imaging services. Part-time and shift work are also available.
Education, Training, and Licensing of Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Healthcare professionals – especially those who already hold associate’s or bachelor’s degrees – can usually enter the nuclear medicine technologist field after completing a one-year certificate program. These individuals are often radiologic technologists and diagnostic medical sonographers. The programs also attract medical technologists, registered nurses, and other healthcare professionals who wish to change fields or specialize.
Individuals not employed in healthcare who are interested in working as nuclear medicine technologists typically attend associate’s degree programs in community colleges or bachelor’s degree programs in four-year colleges and universities.
In 2008, the Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology had accredited more than 100 associate’s and bachelor’s degree training programs.
Coursework often includes the physical sciences, biological effects of radiation exposure, radiation protection and procedures, patient contact, laboratory testing, computer programs, the use of radiopharmaceuticals, imaging enhancement techniques, biology, safety procedures, and computer applications.
Many employers and an increasing number of states require nuclear medicine technologists to be certified or licensed. In 2008, 25 states licensed nuclear medicine technologists. Individuals should review the requirements for the state in which they reside or plan to work. Many third-party payers require nuclear medicine technologist certification before they will reimburse healthcare facilities for imaging procedures.
Certification, while voluntary, has become the accepted standard for nuclear medicine technologists. It is available through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB). Each agency has different eligibility requirements, but both require a comprehensive exam. Some technologists are certified through both agencies.
Because of ongoing technology advances in the field of nuclear medicine, continuing education is required for certified nuclear medicine technologists.
In addition to education, certification, and licensing, employers look for technologists with good communication skills and sensitivity to patient needs. They must be able to work independently, detail-oriented, and meticulous about following directions and performing procedures. They must also assure that all regulations are followed.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook, and Earnings
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nuclear medicine technologists held about 21,800 jobs in 2008. Most of these positions were in hospitals, with the remaining in physicians’ offices, medical and diagnostic laboratories, and diagnostic imaging centers.
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The BLS predicts that employment in this field should grow faster than other occupations, due to technological advancements, increasing numbers of middle-aged and elderly patients, and the development of new nuclear medicine treatments.
BLS records for May 2009 indicate that median annual wages and salary for nuclear medicine technologists were $67,910. The middle 50% of nuclear medicine technologists make between $57,640 and $79,630, while the lowest 10% earned approximately $48,710. The highest 10% brought in around $90,650 annually.