What Is a Nuclear Medicine Technologist
Reviewed by Jacob Imm
Feb 24, 2023
What Is a Nuclear Medicine Technologist?
Would you like to work in a unique healthcare role that combines your passion for technology and medical advancement? If so, becoming a nuclear medicine technologist could be the dream job you never even knew existed.
According to the BLS, there are currently fewer than 19,000 nuclear medicine technologists practicing in the United States, making it a small but important field within the healthcare industry. And, as a nuclear medicine tech, you could play an essential role in a hospital’s healthcare team, providing vital support to patients and medical professionals alike.
But what is a nuclear medicine technologist, exactly? Today, we’ll break down this pivotal role and explain how you could pursue this career path.
Nuclear Medicine Technologists: What They Do, and Why They Matter
A nuclear medicine technologist is a healthcare professional who specializes in the preparation, administration, testing, and monitoring of radioactive substances used to diagnose and treat illnesses in patients.
Nuclear med techs prepare and administer radiopharmaceuticals—medications that contain small doses of radioactive substances, or radionuclides, which are then used to diagnose and treat medical conditions.
Those in this field practice nuclear medicine, which is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on gathering as much information as possible about the structure and function of a person’s organs with the assistance of radiopharmaceuticals, also known as radiotracers.
How Do Nuclear Medicine Technologists Use Radiopharmaceuticals?
Nuclear med techs deploy radiopharmaceuticals in various tests and techniques that allow them to visualize and assess the structure and function of a patient’s organs. These radiopharmaceuticals—such as technetium-99m and iodine-131—are typically administered to patients via injection, ingestion, or inhalation.
Once the radiopharmaceutical is inside the body, it accumulates in the organ or tissue being studied and emits gamma rays. These gamma rays can then be detected by specialized cameras or scanners, thus enabling doctors to identify, diagnose, and monitor various medical conditions.
Even though these substances may only contain trace amounts of radiation, they still can be potentially dangerous if not stored, prepared, or used properly. This is why radiopharmaceuticals are carefully regulated and require special handling.
Knowing the risk to everyone involved, a certified nuclear medicine technologist is diligently trained to handle and administer radiopharmaceuticals safely in order to minimize the risk of radiation exposure.
Why Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist?
Nuclear medicine technologists play a critical role in the healthcare field, using their training and sophisticated radiation-detecting instrumentation to diagnose and treat patients’ medical conditions so that they can return to health.
As such, they may work with a variety of patients and staff, which provides the opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of others. They’re also afforded the privilege of working closely with the most cutting-edge technologies.
Becoming a nuclear medicine tech can also be a rewarding career choice with strong job prospects and competitive salaries. So how much do nuclear medicine technologists make? According to the BLS, the median annual nuclear medicine technologist salary was $78,760 as of May 2021. In addition, the top industries for nuclear med techs by median wage include:
- Outpatient care centers – $125,920
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories – $79,970
- Hospitals; state, local, and private – $78,670
- Offices of physicians – $78,140
The vast majority of nuclear med techs work in a hospital setting, though some may also serve in diagnostic labs, imaging clinics, or physicians’ offices.
What Are the Day-to-Day Tasks of a Nuclear Medicine Technologist?
Once certified, what can you do with a nuclear medicine technologist degree? A certified nuclear medicine technologist plays a vital role in the daily operations of any healthcare facility’s diagnostic teams. Their daily jobs include but are not limited to the following tasks:
- Preparation of radionuclides – A nuclear med tech may be responsible for preparing the safe and appropriate dosage of the radionuclides. This could involve mixing and measuring the proper doses.
- Administration of radionuclides – A nuclear med tech may also administer radiopharmaceuticals through several methods, including injection, ingestion, and inhalation. To that end, they must ensure the proper dosage is provided and administered safely.
- Patient communication – Patients and their loved ones may be understandably wary about the nuclear medicine procedure. The med tech can work closely with both, helping to explain the process, answering questions, and providing comfort as they prepare the patient for the scan. They may also need to convey relevant information about potential risks, side effects, and what to expect from the procedure or treatment.
- Patient care and monitoring – You never know how a patient will respond to even a minor dose of a radioactive substance. Therefore, a med tech is often expected to assist the doctor in monitoring patients for unusual or adverse reactions.
- Taking and collecting scans – The specialist also prepares the camera and monitoring equipment, known as gamma cameras. These medical imaging devices can pick up and capture images of the ingested radionuclides, especially in the brain, bone, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and thyroid. According to Science Direct, “The camera accumulates counts of gamma photons, which are detected by crystals in the camera. Just like an X-ray, the gamma camera will yield a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object.”
- Maintaining and calibrating the equipment – In addition to preparing the medical imaging equipment, the med tech is also expected to ensure that it’s always in proper working order. Daily tasks may include performing routine inspections, calibrations, and maintenance. You may also be asked to operate other imaging equipment, including PET and SPECT scans.
How Do You Become a Nuclear Med Tech?
Do you want to know how to become a nuclear medicine technologist? Although the career path may vary depending on the individual, most nuclear medicine technologists join the field with just an associate's or bachelor’s degree and the completion of a specialized certification and/or licensure program.
The requirements for certification and licensure can vary depending on what state you live in. In most cases, certification exams are available through the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists after the completion of a Nuclear Medicine Technology degree.
Your state may not necessarily require both a certification and a license before you can practice as a nuclear medicine technologist. However, in many instances, the same requirements you must complete to earn your certification can help you earn your license. In addition, earning specialized certifications may help you to gain an extra edge in this field. To learn more about your location's specific requirements, you’ll need to contact your state’s health board.
Nuclear Med Technologist Coursework
If you’re interested in attending a nuclear medicine program, you can meet with your prospective school’s Pre-Professional Health Program Coordinator or the Chemistry Department Chair to learn about the course requirements and prerequisites.
To give you a preview of some of the classes you may need to take, some of the major’s required courses may include:
- CHEM 121 - General Chemistry I – This course covers introductory chemical principles, with major topics including atomic structure, electronic structure, ions, molecules, hybridization, VSEPR, and polymer chemistry.
- CHEM 122 - General Chemistry II – This course introduces additional chemical principles within the context of the environmental issues of fuel and energy, water treatment and acid rain.
- CHEM 251 - Organic Chemistry I – This course covers classes of carbon compounds, with a special emphasis on molecular structure, stereochemistry, and mechanisms of organic reactions.
- CHEM 252 - Organic Chemistry II – This course builds upon previous concepts, transitioning from physical organic chemistry to synthetic organic chemistry.
- BIOL 195 - Investigating Biology – Students and faculty work together to plan and perform a realistic course-based undergraduate research project. This includes lectures, lab work, fieldwork, discussion, and problem-solving activities.
- BIOL 201 - Anatomy and Physiology I – This course covers the structure, organization, and function of body parts and systems, starting at the cellular level and progressing all the way to organ systems. Special emphasis is placed on the integumentary, skeletal, muscle, and digestive systems.
- BIOL 202 - Anatomy and Physiology II – This course continues the study of organ systems with nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, and reproductive systems.
- BIOL 210 - Cells and Systems – This course explores the structure and function of cells and applications to the physiological systems of plants and animals.
- BIOL 230 - Genes and Genomics – This course targets a scientific understanding of genetic analysis and application—spanning from Mendelian genetics to modern molecular genetics—in order to know the inner workings of cellular processes.
- PSYC 250 - Statistics – This course surveys the methods, concepts and logic underlying the statistical evaluation of research data, with descriptive and inferential statistics, estimation and hypothesis testing.
- MATH 151 - Calculus – This course covers the basics of single-variable calculus including limits, continuity, differentiation, and integration with applications.
Additionally, students may need to select one of the following physics sequences:
- PHYS 131 - Physics I (Non-Calculus) – This course covers fundamental physics concepts, including kinematics, Newton’s Laws, conservation laws, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics.
- PHYS 132 - Physics II (Non-Calculus) – This course builds upon previous study to cover more advanced physics concepts, including oscillations, waves, sound, electricity and magnetism, and optics.
- PHYS 161 - Physics I: Mechanics and Heat – This course examines physics concepts through the lens of calculus, motion, conservation of energy, and thermodynamics.
- PHYS 162 - Physics II: Electromagnetism, Waves, and Optics – This course builds upon previous study to cover oscillations, waves, electricity, magnetism, and optics.
Complete Your Nuclear Medicine Technologist Degree with North Central College
Nuclear medicine technologists play an increasingly vital role in the healthcare field. And this field represents an exciting and rewarding career path for students that want to operate in the intersection between medicine, diagnostics, and advanced technology.
If learning more about the field has sparked your interest, then your next step is to consider which nuclear medicine program is right for you.
At North Central College, our partnership with the NM School of Nuclear Medicine Technology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital was designed to prepare, train, and funnel promising students into this exciting field of medicine. The 3+1 program is an excellent track to becoming a nuclear med tech.
If you want to learn more about our online classes and dedicated program, apply today.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Institutional Communication. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
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Technetium-99m Radiopharmaceuticals: Status and Trends. IEAE. Retrieved December 21, 2022, from https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/Pub1405_web.pdf
Translational Imaging Research. Science Direct. Retrieved December 21, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/gamma-camera
How to Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved December 21, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nuclear-medicine-technologists.htm#tab-4