Becoming a Nuclear Medicine Technologists in the U.S.
Nuclear medicine technologists prepare radioactive drugs and administer them to patients for imaging or therapeutic purposes. They provide technical support to physicians or other professional nuclear medicine personnel in the diagnosis, care, and treatment of patients and for research and investigation into the uses of radioactive drugs. They also may act as emergency responders in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Nuclear medicine technologists typically do the following:
- Explain medical procedures to the patient and answer questions
- Follow safety procedures to protect themselves and the patient from unnecessary radiation exposure
- Prepare radioactive drugs and administer them to the patient
- Monitor the patient to check for unusual reactions to the drugs
- Operate imaging equipment
- Keep detailed records of procedures
- Follow radiation disposal and safety procedures
Radioactive drugs, known as radiopharmaceuticals, give off radiation, allowing special scanners to monitor tissue and organ functions. Abnormal areas show higher-than-expected or lower-than-expected concentrations of radioactivity. Physicians and surgeons then interpret the images to help diagnose the patient’s condition. For example, tumors can be seen in organs during a scan because of their concentration of the radioactive drugs.
Radiopharmaceuticals can also be used to deliver concentrated doses of radiation to specific areas, such as tumors, for treatment of conditions that may not allow other forms of treatment. Various forms of internal radiation treatments also may be good alternatives to invasive surgical procedures.
In the event of a radioactive incident or nuclear disaster, some nuclear medicine technologists may be involved in emergency response efforts. These workers’ experience with radiation detection and monitoring equipment could be useful during the response to events that involve radiological materials.
After graduation from an accredited program, a technologist can choose to earn a certification in positron emission tomography (PET) or nuclear cardiology. PET uses a machine that creates a three-dimensional image of a part of the body, such as the brain. Nuclear cardiology uses radioactive drugs to obtain images of the heart. Patients may exercise during the imaging process while the technologist creates images of the heart and blood flow.
Some nuclear medicine technologists work in support of researchers in the development of new nuclear medicine applications in imagery or therapy.
Some radiopharmaceuticals are given intravenously to treat cancers, blood diseases, or other illnesses.
Nuclear medicine technologists held about 19,300 jobs in 2018. Technologists are on their feet for long periods and may need to lift or turn patients who are disabled.
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.
Most nuclear medicine technologists work full time. Some nuclear medicine technologists work evenings, weekends, or nights
How to Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist
Nuclear medicine technologists can earn specialty certifications that show their proficiency in specific procedures or equipment.
Nuclear medicine technologists typically need an associate’s degree from an accredited nuclear medicine technology program. Formal education programs in nuclear medicine technology or a related healthcare field lead to a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree. Most nuclear medicine technologists become certified.
Nuclear medicine technologists typically need an associate’s degree in nuclear medicine technology. Bachelor’s degrees are also common. Some technologists become qualified by completing an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree program in a related health field, such as radiologic technology or nursing, and then completing a 12-month certificate program in nuclear medicine technology.
Nuclear medicine technology programs often include courses in human anatomy and physiology, physics, chemistry, radioactive drugs, and computer science. In addition, these programs include clinical experience—practice under the supervision of a certified nuclear medicine technologist and a physician or surgeon who specializes in nuclear medicine.
The Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology accredits nuclear medicine programs. Graduating from an accredited program may be required for licensure or by an employer.
High school students who are interested in nuclear medicine technology should take courses in math and science, such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physics.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Most nuclear medicine technologists become certified. Although certification is not required for a license, it fulfills most of the requirements for state licensure. Licensing requirements vary by state. For specific requirements, contact the state’s health board.
Some employers require certification, regardless of state regulations. Certification usually involves graduating from an accredited nuclear medicine technology program. Certification is available from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB).
In addition to receiving general certification, technologists can earn specialty certifications that show their proficiency in specific procedures or on certain equipment. A technologist can earn certification in positron emission tomography (PET), nuclear cardiology (NCT), or computed tomography (CT). The NMTCB offers NCT, PET, and CT certification exams.
Ability to use technology. Nuclear medicine technologists work with computers and large pieces of technological equipment and must be comfortable operating them.
Analytical skills. Nuclear medicine technologists must understand anatomy, physiology, and other sciences and be able to calculate accurate dosages.
Compassion. Nuclear medicine technologists must be able to reassure and calm patients who are under physical and emotional stress.
Detail oriented. Nuclear medicine technologists must follow exact instructions to make sure that the correct dosage is given and that the patient is not overexposed to radiation.
Interpersonal skills. Nuclear medicine technologists interact with patients and often work as part of a team. They must be able to follow instructions from a supervising physician.
Physical stamina. Nuclear medicine technologists must stand for long periods and be able to lift and move patients who need help.
Employment of nuclear medicine technologists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.
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.
Nuclear medicine technologists can improve their job prospects by completing a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program or earning a specialty certification, such as in positron emission tomography (PET), nuclear cardiology (NCT), or computed tomography (CT).