There are approximately 22,000 nuclear medicine technologists working in the United States. Job growth projections for the next ten years indicate the field will grow by 16%, which is above the average for all jobs; however, there will competition for these jobs, as the outlook suggests there will be more trained nuclear medicine technologists than positions available.
Nuclear medicine technology offers diagnostic imaging based on changes in metabolism rather than in organ structure. In this way, it is different from other imaging technologies such as x-rays or MRIs. Radionuclides are unstable atoms that spontaneously release radiation. Before they are usable, radionuclides must be decontaminated and compounded into radiopharmaceuticals. They can then be used to produce diagnostic images. Areas showing concentrations of radioactivity that are outside the expected range are considered abnormal.
Nuclear medicine technologists are trained to operate equipment that creates images by mapping the radioactive drug after it is inside a patient’s body. First, technologists prepare and administer the drug to the patient either orally, by injection, or by inhalation. Next, the patient is positioned and the technician turns on the gamma scintillation camera, also called a scanner. The scanner forms images of the way the radiopharmaceutical distributes itself by tracking the signals it emits.
Nuclear medicine technologists specialize in either nuclear cardiology or positron emission tomography (PET). Nuclear cardiology focuses on myocardial perfusion imaging which images the body using radiopharmaceuticals and cameras. In order to accomplish myocardial perfusion imaging, the patient must be physically active so the technologist can accurately image blood flow. PET technologists use a medical imaging tool capable of producing three dimensional images of the body.
Nuclear medicine technologists must have physical stamina as the work requires them to stand or walk for most of the day; they also must help turn or lift patients unable to move on their own. Manual dexterity and mechanical aptitude are important to operate the complex equipment. Technologists must be careful to minimize radiation risk with shielded syringes, gloves, and other protective clothing or devices as well as by following all radiation safety guidelines. Technologists also wear badges which record radiation levels. Most technologists work 40 hours per week. Those who work in hospitals with extended hours may be required to be on call, and work evenings, nights or weekends. Technicians who work with mobile imaging services travel to areas where such technology is not otherwise available.
A certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree can be earned from nuclear medicine technology programs of one to four years in length. Not all states require licensure; however, this is beginning to change. In states where licensure is not required, many employers still favor job applicants who have earned it. Most certificate programs are offered by hospitals, associate degree programs by community or technical colleges, and bachelor’s programs in four-year schools.
Accreditation for an associate’s and bachelor’s degree program is given by the Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology. Coursework concerns the biological effects of radiation exposure, physical sciences, radiation protection and procedures, imaging techniques, radiopharmaceuticals, and computer applications. There are about 100 colleges and universities offering programs.
There is no national standard for licensure of nuclear medicine technologist in the 25 states that require it. However, most third party payers require certification of nuclear medicine technologists in order to receive reimbursement. Certificate programs are most often earned by healthcare workers with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in another area who want to specialize in nuclear medicine.
While certification is not required, it is desirable. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) both offer certification. Each has unique eligibility requirements, but in both cases, technologists must pass an exam. To keep certification active requires a set number of hours of continuing education.
Good communication skills, manual dexterity and attention to detail are important characteristics. Technologists will interact with patients who may be depressed or anxious; it is important that technologists convey information in a sensitive, responsible manner.
Moving to a supervisory position or to chief technologist is one method of career advancement; this requires substantial on-the-job experience. An advanced degree allows technologists to step into department administrator or director roles. With a bachelor’s or master’s degree, it is also possible to become an instructor or to direct a nuclear medicine technology program. Another way to advance is by working in a sales position or as a trainer for medical equipment or radiopharmaceutical firms. Yet another path is to become a radiation safety officer in a regulatory hospital or agency.
Two-thirds of all nuclear medicine technologists work in private or public hospitals. The remainders are employed by laboratories or doctors’ offices.
The median annual income for nuclear medicine technologists is about $67,000. Those in the midrange earn between $58,000 and $79,000. Those in the bottom 10% earn less than $50,000, while those in the top 10% earn more than $88,000.