Nuclear medicine technology programs range in length from
1 to 4 years and lead to a certificate, an associate degree,
or a bachelor’s degree.
Faster than average growth will arise from an increase in
the number of middle-aged and elderly persons, who are the primary
users of diagnostic procedures.
The number of job openings each year will be relatively low
because the occupation is small; technologists who also are
trained in other diagnostic methods, such as radiologic technology
or diagnostic medical sonography, will have the best prospects.
Nature of the Work
Diagnostic imaging embraces several procedures that aid in diagnosing
ailments, the most familiar being the x ray. Another increasingly
common diagnostic imaging method, called magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI), uses giant magnets and radio waves, rather than radiation,
to create an image. In nuclear medicine, radionuclides—unstable
atoms that emit radiation spontaneously—are used to diagnose and
treat disease. Radionuclides are purified and compounded to form
radiopharmaceuticals. Nuclear medicine technologists administer
radiopharmaceuticals 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 biological changes rather
than changes in organ structure.
Nuclear medicine technologists operate cameras that detect and
map the radioactive drug in a patient’s body to create diagnostic
images. After explaining test procedures to patients, technologists
prepare a dosage of the radiopharmaceutical and administer it
by mouth, injection, inhalation, or other means. They position
patients and start a gamma scintillation camera, or “scanner,”
which creates images of the distribution of a radiopharmaceutical
as it localizes in, and emits signals from, the patient’s body.
The images are produced on a computer screen or on film for a
physician to interpret.
When preparing radiopharmaceuticals, technologists adhere to
safety standards that keep the radiation dose to workers and patients
as low as possible. Technologists keep patient records and record
the amount and type of radionuclides that they receive, use, and
Radiologic technologists and technicians, diagnostic medical
sonographers, and cardiovascular technologists and technicians
also operate diagnostic imaging equipment, but their equipment
creates images by means of a different technology. (See the statements
on these occupations elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Nuclear medicine technologists also perform radioimmunoassay
studies that assess the behavior of a radioactive substance inside
the body. For example, technologists may add radioactive substances
to blood or serum to determine levels of hormones or of therapeutic
drugs in the body. Most nuclear medicine studies, such as cardiac
function studies, are processed with the aid of a computer.
Nuclear medicine technologists generally work a 40-hour week,
perhaps including evening or weekend hours, in departments that
operate on an extended schedule. Opportunities for part-time and
shift work also are available. In addition, technologists in hospitals
may have on-call duty on a rotational basis.
Physical stamina is important because technologists are on their
feet much of the day and may lift or turn disabled patients.
Although the potential for radiation exposure exists in this
field, it is kept to a minimum by the use of shielded syringes,
gloves, and other protective devices and by adherence to strict
radiation safety guidelines. The amount of radiation in a nuclear
medicine procedure is comparable to that received during a diagnostic
x-ray procedure. Technologists also wear badges that measure radiation
levels. Because of safety programs, badge measurements rarely
exceed established safety levels.
Many employers and an increasing number of States require certification
or licensure. Aspiring nuclear medicine technologists should check
the requirements of the State in which they plan to work. Certification
is available from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists
and from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board.
Some workers receive certification from both agencies. Nuclear
medicine technologists must meet the minimum Federal standards
on the administration of radioactive drugs and the operation of
radiation detection equipment.
Nuclear medicine technology programs range in length from 1 to
4 years and lead to a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s
degree. Generally, certificate programs are offered in hospitals,
associate degree programs in community colleges, and bachelor’s
degree programs in 4-year colleges and universities. Courses cover
the physical sciences, biological effects of radiation exposure,
radiation protection and procedures, the use of radiopharmaceuticals,
imaging techniques, and computer applications.
One-year certificate programs are for health professionals who
already posses an associate degree—especially radiologic technologists
and diagnostic medical sonographers—but who wish to specialize
in nuclear medicine. The programs also attract medical technologists,
registered nurses, and others who wish to change fields or specialize.
Others interested in nuclear medicine technology have three options:
a 2-year certificate program, a 2-year associate degree program,
or a 4-year bachelor’s degree program.
The Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine
Technology accredits most formal training programs in nuclear
medicine technology. In 2005, there were 100 accredited programs
in the continental United States and Puerto Rico.
Nuclear medicine technologists should be sensitive to patients’
physical and psychological needs. They must pay attention to detail,
follow instructions, and work as part of a team. In addition,
operating complicated equipment requires mechanical ability and
Technologists may advance to supervisor, then to chief technologist,
and, finally, to department administrator or director. Some technologists
specialize in a clinical area such as nuclear cardiology or computer
analysis or leave patient care to take positions in research laboratories.
Some become instructors in, or directors of, nuclear medicine
technology programs, a step that usually requires a bachelor’s
or master’s degree in the subject. Others leave the occupation
to work as sales or training representatives for medical equipment
and radiopharmaceutical manufacturing firms or as radiation safety
officers in regulatory agencies or hospitals.
Nuclear medicine technologists held about 18,000 jobs in 2004.
About 7 out of 10 were in hospitals—private and government. Most
of the rest were in offices of physicians or in medical and diagnostic
laboratories, including diagnostic imaging centers.
Employment of nuclear medicine technologists is expected to grow faster than the average
for all occupations through the year 2014. Growth will arise from
technological advancement, the development of new nuclear medicine
treatments, and an increase in the number of middle-aged and older
persons, who are the primary users of diagnostic procedures, including
nuclear medicine tests. However, the number of openings each year
will be relatively low because the occupation is small. Technologists
who also are trained in other diagnostic methods, such as radiologic
technology or diagnostic medical sonography, will have the best
Technological innovations may increase the diagnostic uses of
nuclear medicine. One example is the use of radiopharmaceuticals
in combination with monoclonal antibodies to detect cancer at
far earlier stages than is customary today and without resorting
to surgery. Another is the use of radionuclides to examine the
heart’s ability to pump blood. New nuclear medical imaging technologies,
including positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon
emission computed tomography (SPECT), are expected to be used
increasingly and to contribute further to employment growth. The
wider use of nuclear medical imaging to observe metabolic and
biochemical changes during neurology, cardiology, and oncology
procedures also will spur demand for nuclear medicine technologists.
Nonetheless, cost considerations will affect the speed with which
new applications of nuclear medicine grow. Some promising nuclear
medicine procedures, such as positron emission tomography, are
extremely costly, and hospitals contemplating these procedures
will have to consider equipment costs, reimbursement policies,
and the number of potential users.
Median annual earnings of nuclear medicine technologists were
$56,450 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $48,720
and $67,460. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,800, and
the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,300. Median annual
earnings of nuclear medicine technologists in May 2004 were $54,920
in general medical and surgical hospitals.