Above: Positron Emission Tomography (PET) reveals metastatic breast cancer in a patient. The PET scanner at KU was the first one in the state of Kansas and the Kansas City metropolitan area
Nuclear medicine technologists operate equipment that detects and maps a radioactive drug within a patient’s body to create diagnostic images. The images are then produced on a computer screen or on film for diagnosis by the health care team.
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 organ structure. These professionals handle radionuclides — unstable atoms that emit radiation — which are purified and compounded to form the radiopharmaceuticals detected by highly specialized equipment. By administering these radiopharmaceuticals to patients they can monitor the characteristics and functions of tissues or organs in which the drugs localize.
This field requires excellent communication skills and workers must be detail-oriented. Although nuclear medicine technologists must be able to work independently, they do interact with patients and their families. In working with large equipment and moving patients during tests, a fair amount of physical ability is necessary for this career.
About two-thirds of all nuclear medicine technologist jobs are in hospitals. These professionals are also employed in offices of physicians or in medical and diagnostic laboratories. Relatively speaking, this is a small occupation within health care. Not only are these highly trained professionals in demand, but job growth is expected to be greater than that of most other occupations as health care needs in the community continue to grow. In 2006, the median annual earnings of nuclear medicine technologists was $62,300.
Many different paths may be taken to enter the field of nuclear medicine technology. To work in this field, training must be acquired from a formal program accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology. KU's certificate program is accredited and requires one year of study. It is targeted for health professionals such as radiologic technologists and diagnostic medical sonographers with work experience or for those with a degree in a health science field. The program also attracts medical technologists, registered nurses, and others who wish to change fields or specialize in nuclear medicine.
Requirements to work in nuclear medicine varies from state to state, so aspiring nuclear medicine technologists should check the requirements of the State in which they plan to work. Most states require certification or licensing of nuclear medicine technicians. Certification is available from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB). Although not required, some workers receive certification from both agencies. ARRT and NMTCB have different requirements, but in all cases, one must pass a comprehensive exam to become certified.
In addition to the general certification requirements, certified technicians also must complete a certain number of continuing education hours. Continuing education is required primarily because of the frequent technological and innovative changes in the field of nuclear medicine.