Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology is the medical specialty concerned with the use of safe and small amounts of radioactive material for diagnostic, therapeutic, and research purposes. Nuclear medicine involves using radioactive materials to perform body function studies and organ imaging, analyze biologic specimens and to treat, manage, and prevent serious disease. Nuclear medicine allows for early detection that can result in more effective treatments and better prognosis.
Nuclear medicine imaging techniques combine the use of radioactive substances, detectors, and computers to provide physicians with a way to see inside the human body. Specific techniques include positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). Nuclear medicine imaging is useful for detecting tumors, irregular or inadequate blood flow to various tissues, blood cell disorders, and inadequate functioning of organs. During diagnostic procedures, the patient experiences little or no discomfort, and the radiation dose is small.
Nuclear medicine technologists are highly skilled individuals who work closely with nuclear medicine physicians. Responsibilities include in vivo procedures, performing radiation safety and quality control procedures, operating the cameras that create images, and patient positioning and education. The technologist also collects, prepares, and analyzes biologic specimens, and prepares data for the physician's interpretation.
In nuclear medicine, radioactive materials, or radiopharmaceuticals, are used to diagnose and treat disease. Radiopharmaceuticals are attracted to specific organs, bones, or tissues and emit gamma rays that can be detected externally by scintillation cameras. Images are created by computers and provide data and information about the area of the body being imaged. The amount of radiation from a nuclear medicine procedure is comparable to that received during a diagnostic x ray.
Before the procedure, the nuclear medicine technologist explains the test procedure to the patient. The technologist then prepares a dosage of the radiopharmaceutical, which can be administered intravenously, orally, or by inhalation. When preparing radiopharmaceuticals, technologists adhere to safety standards that keep the radiation dose as low as possible. After positioning the patient for imaging, the technologist starts a gamma scintillation camera that scans the radioactive material and creates images of its distribution as it localizes in and emits signals from the patient's body.
Nuclear medicine technologists also perform radioimmunoassay studies. These studies 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 therapeutic drug content.
Nuclear medicine technologists work in a variety of clinical settings including community hospitals, university-affiliated teaching hospitals, research institutions, imaging centers, public health institutions, and physicians' offices. Some technologists find work outside the medical profession as sales or training representatives for medical equipment and radiopharmaceutical manufacturing firms, or as radiation safety officers in regulatory agencies or hospitals.
Risks for radiation exposure do exist in the workplace, but it is kept to a minimum by adherence to strict safety guidelines in the field. These include the use of shielded syringes, gloves, and other protective devices. Technologists also wear badges that measure radiation levels.
Education and training
Individuals seeking to go into nuclear medicine need a strong background in anatomy, physiology, mathematics, chemistry, physics, radiation safety, clinical nuclear instrumentation, and laboratory technique.
Nuclear medicine technology programs vary in length from one to four years. Depending on the program, an individual can earn a certificate, associate's degree or bachelor's degree. Generally, healthcare professionals like radiologic technologists will enter a one-year certificate program when they want to specialize in nuclear medicine. Certificate programs are offered in
Program graduates take two national certification exams: the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the Nuclear Medicine Technologist Certification Board (NMTCB). Upon successful completion of the exams, the individual will be a certified nuclear medicine technologist (CNMT).
All nuclear medicine technologists must meet the minimum federal standards on the administration of radioactive drugs and the operation of radiation detection equipment. Licensure is required in about half of the 50U.S. states.
Advanced education and training
Certified nuclear medicine technologists can continue their education to earn an associate in science degree or enter a baccalaureate degree program at an area university. Some technologists seek to specialize in a clinical area such as nuclear cardiology or computer analysis. Technologists seeking to advance their careers or to become instructors or directors for nuclear medicine technology programs will pursue a bachelor's degree or a master's in nuclear medicine technology. Continuing education allows individuals to advance into positions such as supervisor, chief technologist, department administrator, or department director.
The number of job openings each year in nuclear medicine technology is relatively low because the field is not large. However, technological innovations in the field may spur an increased demand for nuclear medicine technologists. Also, more opportunities may arise with the development of new radiopharmaceuticals and with the wider application of nuclear medical imaging in areas like neurology, cardiology, and oncology. Still, there will be more competition for jobs as many hospitals are combining their nuclear medicine and radiologic departments. Therefore, technologists who can perform both nuclear medicine and radiologic procedures will have the best prospects.
Gamma camera—The basic instrument used to produce a nuclear medicine image.
In vivo—In vivo procedures involve trace amounts of radiopharmaceuticals given directly to a patient. The majority of nuclear medicine procedures are in vivo.
Positron emission tomography (PET)—A technique that produces three-dimensional computerreconstructed images that measure and determine the biochemistry or physiology in a specific organ or site.
Radiopharmaceutical—Also called a tracer, it is the radioactive compound necessary to produce a nuclear medicine image.
Scan—The images produced as the result of a nuclear medicine procedure, often referred to as the actual procedure, examination, or test.
Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)—A technique that provides three-dimensional computer-reconstructed images of multiple views and function of the organ being imaged.
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"Nuclear Medicine Technologists." Occupational Outlook Handbook. 2001. <http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos104.htm> (January 5, 2001).
Society of Nuclear Medicine. "About Nuclear Medicine." 2001. <http://www.snm.org/nuclear/index.html> (June 16, 2001).
Daniel J. Harvey