Nuclear medicine combines chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer technology, and medicine in using radioactivity to diagnose and treat disease. Though there are many diagnostic techniques currently available, nuclear medicine uniquely provides information about both the structure and function of virtually every major organ system within the body. It is this ability to characterize and quantify physiologic function which separates nuclear medicine from other imaging modalities, such as x-ray. Nuclear medicine procedures are safe, they involve little or no patient discomfort and do not require the use of anesthesia.
Diagnostic imaging embraces several procedures that aid in diagnosing ailments, the most familiar being x-ray. In nuclear medicine, the radionuclides-unusable atoms that emit radiation spontaneously-are used to diagnose and treat disease. Radionuclides are purified and compounded to form radio-pharmaceuticals. Nuclear medicine technologists administer radio-pharmaceuticals to patients and then monitor the characteristics and functions of tissues or organs in which the drugs localize. Abnormal areas show higher-than-expected or lower-than-expected concentrations of radioactivity.
Nuclear medicine differs from other diagnostic imaging technologies because it determines the presence of disease on the basis of metabolic changes rather than changes in the organ structure.
Education and Certification
There are a few educational routes to take which vary from one to four years. There is the minimal one year certificate program offered by hospitals. There is the associates degree offered at community and technical schools. Finally, there is the four year bachelor’s program. For all programs, the courses will cover the physical sciences, biological effects of radiation exposure, radiation protection and procedures, the use of radio-pharmaceuticals, imaging techniques, and computer applications.
The one year program is for those who are already health professionals with at least an associate’s degree and wish to branch into this field. For example, diagnostic medical sonographers, registered nurses or radiology technicians are prospective candidates to enter nuclear medicine.
Many of the schools offering an associate’s degree in nuclear medicine technology have a limited annual enrollment. Therefore, in preparation for the competition of being accepted, it is advisable for the high school student to take classes in math, computer science, chemistry, physics and physiology. There are Nuclear Medicine Technologist Schools in most states. The complete list may be found at: nuclearmedicinecareer.com.
Certification in nuclear medicine is voluntary. There are two organizations which currently certify technologists in Nuclear Medicine:
- Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB):
- requires a baccalaureate or associates degree in one of the physical or biological sciences or national certification in another related field, such as registered radiographer (RT) or registered nurse (RN)
- requires four years or 8000 hours of clinical experience in nuclear medicine under the supervision of a physician board certified in nuclear radiology or nuclear medicine
- completion of a minimum of 15 hours of course work in each of: radiopharmacy, nuclear medicine instrumentation and radiation safety.
- American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT):
- candidates must be of good moral character-ie. no felonies or misdemeanors
- completion of formal education which is accredited and accepted by ARRT.
Technologists must be licensed in 25 states in the U.S.. The exams vary from state to state as do the license obligations; some require continuing education over 1-3 years. Further information on licensure and certifications is available at: www.snm.org.
The Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS) projects the job growth to be 20% through 2022 or 4,200 jobs added/changed. The median annual salary as of 2012 was $70,180 with an Associates’s degree and no work experience. The majority of the technologists are employed in hospitals.
For those interested in pursuing a degree in the medical profession, the nuclear medicine field offers an excellent salary, job growth and working in the comfort of a hospital or imaging facility. Also, it does not take years of an expensive formal education to attain your associate’s degree which may grant you access to this complex technology occupation.