Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive materials, called radiopharmaceuticals, to diagnose and treat various diseases. The radiopharmaceuticals, given by injection, can be targeted for specific organs, bone or tissues. During imaging procedures, the radiopharmaceutical is detected by a special computer-linked camera, which provides very precise pictures of the targeted body area. This enables physicians to make a very specific diagnosis and plan for treatment.
Nuclear medicine imaging is unique in that it provides information about physiological function, whereas other imaging modalities like X-ray, CT, and MRI provide information about structure. Nuclear medicine procedures can often identify abnormalities very early in the disease process, which can lead to better treatment outcomes. There are nearly 100 different nuclear imaging procedures, but the most common ones are cardiac exams, bone scans to detect cancer or stress fractures, and tests for the liver gall bladder and thyroid. Radiopharmaceuticals used in treating disease go directly to the organ being treated, so surrounding tissue and cells as spared from damage. New and innovative treatments are targeting molecular levels within the body.
The nuclear medicine technologist prepares and administers the radiopharmaceuticals, acquires and processes diagnostic images, assists in the therapeutic treatments and care of patients, and prepares reports for the physician.
- Diagnostic imaging centers
- Physician offices
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories
Physical stamina is important because nuclear medicine technologists are on their feet much of the day and need to lift, turn and position patients for exams. Although the potential for radiation exposure exists in this field, it is minimized by the use of protective devices and strict adherence to standard safety guidelines. The amount of radiation in a nuclear medicine procedures is comparable to that received during a diagnostic x-ray procedures. The work schedule is generally a 5-day, 40-hour week, but some facilities may require on-call duty or have extended hours of operation.
Employment of nuclear medicine technologists is expected to increase by 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. Growth will arise from technological advancements and the growing middle-aged and elderly population, who are the primary users of diagnostic and treatment procedures.
- Ability to work with a variety of people
- Good communication skills
- Ability to see slight differences in objects
- Ability to follow instructions and attend to details
- Ability to use numbers well and calculate dosages
- Ability to interpret test results and report findings
- Mechanical ability and manual dexterity
- Good manual dexterity, space and form perception
Educational programs range in length from one to four years and lead to a certificate, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. The one-year certificate is typically for health professionals who already possess a degree, especially radiologic technologists who wish to specialize in nuclear medicine.
Nuclear medicine combines chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer technology and medicine.
Certification is available through the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.
Programs in Nebraska
- University of Nebraska Medical Center – Omaha (Bachelor’s)
Related / Links
Other careers that use radiation, perform diagnostic imaging procedures, and operate sophisticated equipment to help physicians diagnose or treat patients include:
- Cardiac sonographer/Vascular sonographer
- Diagnostic medical sonographer
- Invasive cardiovascular technologist
- Radiation therapist
- Radiologic technologist
Society of Nuclear Medicine – information about a career in nuclear medicine
Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology – for information about accredited programs
Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board – for information about certification
The American Society of Radiologic Technologists – information about a career in nuclear medicine, accredited programs, and certification.
Career information adapted in part from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handook, 2010-2011 Edition, Nuclear Medicine Technologists, on the Internet at www.bls.gov