Nuclear Medicine Technologist Job Description
A nuclear medicine technologist (sometimes called a nuclear medicine technician) is a type of radiology technician that performs imaging tests using special scanners and cameras, along with compounded radioactive substances called radiopharmaceuticals to assist physicians in diagnosing and treating disease in patients. Nuclear medicine technology is generally tissue/organ specific, as opposed to other techniques such as those utilized by a CT tech or a MRI technician who perform computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging procedures that generally focus on a particular region of the body, such as the abdomen or head.
Radiopharmaceuticals are typically administered either orally, intravenously, or by inhalation, and will localize to specific organs or tissues and emit radiation in order to provide a means of imaging for examination. One of the advantages of nuclear medicine technology is that in certain illnesses, nuclear medicine studies are capable of identifying problems earlier on than other testing procedures.
There are major differences between nuclear medicine technologists and other types of radiology specialists, such as an X-ray technician. The most obvious difference is that a nuclear medicine tech interprets images provided by radiation that emits outward from within the body, whereas a traditional radiology technician utilizing X-rays does the exact opposite. X-ray images—otherwise known as radiographs—are provided by a source that generates radiation externally and penetrates in and passes through the tissue. Diagnostic nuclear imaging can also be performed using 2D and 3D procedures, while some centers even use hybrid scanning techniques by superimposing nuclear medicine scans with images from other imaging modalities such as MRI or CT.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Duties and Responsibilites
There are general duties that you will be responsible for as a professional nuclear medicine technologist; these typically include, but are not limited to:
- Operating special nuclear medicine tech imaging equipment, such as computers and gamma cameras
- Maintaining said equipment and making sure it’s in safe and proper working order
- Discussing procedures with patients and appropriately answering their questions
- Positioning and moving patients for imaging procedures
- Preparing and administering radiopharmaceuticals to patients
- Observing patients during procedures and reporting abnormalities
- Responsibly overseeing and maintaining comprehensive patient records
- Following stringent safety procedures to avoid excessive radiation exposure to themselves, and patients.
Nuclear medicine techs spend a lot of time working on their feet, so physical fitness is essential. They typically work 40-hours per week with the occasional overtime, and those employed by hospitals may be on-call.
Where do Nuclear Medicine Techs Work?
Like most specialists involved in radiology technologist jobs such as a CT technologist or a mammographer, nuclear medicine technologists can be found practicing in a host of different work environments. These include medical and diagnostic laboratories, outpatient care centers, physician’s offices, and most commonly—hospitals, which employ over 60% of all nuclear medicine tech’s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here’s a breakdown:
- Hospitals 63%
- Physician’s Offices 25%
- Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories 6%
- Outpatient Centers 2%
Although there is an inherent risk of hazardous radiation exposure in the field of nuclear medicine, it is greatly reduced by adhering to strict safety regulations and utilizing specialized safety equipment including gloves, shielded syringes, and other shielding devices. Furthermore, nuclear medicine technologists wear special badges that measure the amount of radiation they are being exposed to.
For those trying to figure out exactly how to become a nuclear medicine technologist, it begins with education. Becoming a nuclear medicine tech requires a certificate or degree from a nuclear medicine technology program that has been accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT). The JRCNMT is the only agency in the United States that is recognized for accrediting nuclear medicine technology programs. You can find a list of all accredited nuclear medicine technologist schools and accredited radiology programs on their site here.
While 2-year associate’s radiology degree programs from accredited radiology technician schools are generally the most common entry pathway into the field, four-year bachelor’s degree programs and 1-year certificate based programs that usually take place in hospitals are also available. These programs typically require the completion of a clinical component, and generally include courses such as chemistry, human anatomy and physiology, computer science, and physics.
After completing a program from one of the many nuclear medicine schools available, the next step is to become certified and registered. This is accomplished by passing a certification exam given by one of two widely recognized certification bodies; these are:
- The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)
- Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB)
Although this step is technically voluntary, most nuclear medicine technologist jobs generally require certification nowadays. It should be noted however that beginning January of 2015, an academic degree will be required to take the ARRT certification exam. You can read more about that on the The ARRT site here.
After you’ve successfully earned a certificate or degree and become ARRT certified, you will need to find out if the state you want to practice in requires licensure, as more than half of states currently do. However, if you’ve obtained certification from either the ARRT or the NMTBC, there is a good chance that you will not have to take a state licensure examination, as most states that do require a license consider certification to be sufficient. Considering that all states impose different rules and regulations when it comes to working in the field of nuclear medicine, you will have to check with the appropriate governing bodies in your state to find out what is required of you.
With a slightly-better-than-average projected growth rate of 19% between 2010-2020, the future for those interested in becoming nuclear medicine technologists looks rather promising. This is opposed to the 14% average growth rate of all occupations combined, according to the BLS. It should be noted however that even though there is a positive job outlook, when you consider the fact that there is only approximately 22,000 nuclear medicine technologists practicing nationwide today, 14% doesn’t equate to a terribly large number of jobs.
How Much Does a Nuclear Medicine Technologist Make?
If you’re primary interest is a job that offers terrific pay, a career in nuclear medicine technology might just be your calling. With a mean annual salary coming in just shy of $71,000, the typical nuclear medicine technologist generally earns substantially more than most other radiology specialists in the field. For instance, the average annual CT technologist salary is roughly $60,500 (about 15% less), and the average X-ray technician salary is $56,450 (about 20%) less. You can read more about this on our Nuclear Medicine Technologist Salary page.