How to Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologists: Degree Programs, Salary and Outlook

What is Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear medicine uses radionuclides to diagnose and treat various diseases of the human body. Radionuclides are a specific kind of atoms that spontaneously emit radiation. The radionuclides used in nuclear medicine need to be compounded, as well as purified, in order to form radiopharmaceuticals.

What Nuclear Medicine Technologists Do

Nuclear medicine technologists need to have specific knowledge and skills from two academic fields: physics and biology. They are highly specialized in working with sensitive equipment, radiopharmaceuticals and patients who might be worried, anxious or afraid of the treatment or the diagnostic process. That’s why nuclear medicine technologists need to be able to treat the patients in a professional manner, yet remain kind and patient to minimize the possibility of the patients suffering a traumatic experience of the treatment. It is the most important and most sensitive skill a nuclear medicine technologist needs to master.

Nuclear medicine technologists combine their academic specialization of biology and physics to combine, purify and properly prepare the radiopharmaceuticals. Together with other required medications, the nuclear medicine technologists administer the pharmaceuticals to the patients. The radiopharmaceuticals will localize in the organs and tissues of the patients. The nuclear medicine technologists use the specialized equipment to observe the characteristics and the functions of the organs and tissues of the patient.

The specialized equipment contains specific scanners capable of monitoring the radiation level given off by the pharmaceuticals located in the patient’s organs and tissues, and generates images which are later interpreted by specialists, physicians and surgeons. The images will show the level of radiation concentrated in the tissues and organs. Areas that have a higher or lower radiation concentration are considered abnormal, which is how tumors can be seen affecting an organ or specific tissue.

Responsibilities of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

Nuclear medicine technologists have a variety of responsibilities, which can include:

  • Preparing and administering the radiopharmaceuticals and other medications to the patients
  • Use advanced technology to generate, augment and clear images of patient’s organs and tissues
  • Provide patient information, enhanced images and correct data analysis for diagnostic conclusion or other therapy processes.
  • Ensure that the specialized equipment is properly calibrated, fully maintained and working correctly
  • When using the equipment, follow specific safety guidelines and instructions in order to ensure that neither themselves nor the patient will be exposed to unnecessary radiation
  • Explain the process of generating images to the patient and answer any questions the patient might have
  • Put patients at ease if they are afraid, anxious or worried about the procedure
  • During the process, carefully monitor the patient for any sign of side effects or abnormal reactions to the radiopharmaceuticals
  • Ensure that the records of the process are archived and detailed
  • Follow specific guidelines about proper radiation disposal

A nuclear medicine technologist’s tasks and responsibilities ensure a varied workload which can be challenging on a day to day basis. As a career, it demands a great level of skill, specialization and patience, but it is rewarding and worthwhile. It means collaborate with a team of professionals of various other medical disciplines to ensure that the patients get the right diagnosis which is the most important element of treating various illnesses like tumors and cancers, and to ensure that the patients are undergoing the correct treatment.

Work Environment of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

Being a full-time nuclear medicine technologist can be demanding, as they usually work around 40 hours per week. If the departments they work in use extended schedules, nuclear medicine technologists work weekends and holidays. They can also be on call, or work night shifts, as there might be a need for an emergency imaging, diagnosis or treatment. There are also opportunities for part-time work.

There are several industries that hire nuclear medicine technologists. State, local and private hospitals hire around 65%. Around 20% are hired by private practices and physicians, and around 1-2% nuclear medicine technologists are hired at other medical and diagnostic laboratories.

Nuclear medicine technologists spend most of the day on their feet, which means physical stamina is important, especially since they have to help, turn, or lift patients who are disabled or otherwise unable to move on their own. They also need to operate the specialized equipment, and have sufficient manual dexterity to ensure nothing happens to it. Additionally, they need to be aware of the possibility of radiation exposures. However, the risk of radiation exposure has been reduced to minimum with the use of gloves, protective devices and syringes with special shielding. This means that the nuclear medicine technologist needs to be able to follow the specific safety guidelines and be always on alert for any possible mishap.

Occupational Hazards of Nuclear Medicine Technology

Nuclear medicine technologists wear special badges that constantly monitor the levels of radiation in the specific areas. The badges use specific measuring instruments and keep specific, detailed records of the amount of radiation that the nuclear medicine technologists are exposed to in their lifetime.

Another possible occupation hazard is the exposure to various diseases, some of which can be contagious, which is why the nuclear medicine technologists need to use protection in the form of gloves and face masks, when attending to the patients. They also need to adhere to the standard medical protection guidelines like other health-care workers.

How to Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist?

Nuclear medicine technologists need an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine technology. However, bachelor’s degree holders from different health related fields, like radiologic technology or nursing, can also become qualified to work as nuclear medicine technologists if they complete a 12-month program and get a certificate in nuclear medicine technology.

1.    Official Education: High School, College and University

High school students that are interested in pursuing a career in nuclear medicine should take courses in math and science – physics, chemistry, human anatomy and physiology. Then, they should proceed to colleges and universities and obtain an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine.

In universities, the nuclear medicine technology program often incorporates courses related to the human anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry, radioactive drugs, and computer science, because nuclear medicine technologists need the combined knowledge and skills of those fields to properly administer the drugs to the patients, know how to put them at ease, and then to record the images and save them for analysis and diagnosis.  The courses also cover biological effects of radiation exposure, radiation protection procedures, and the correct use of radiopharmaceuticals. This is why an important part of the university program is practical experience and training under the supervision of an established nuclear medicine technologist, as well as physicians and surgeons who specialize in the same field. Most nuclear medicine programs need one to four years of study. This leads to obtaining a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. Associate’s degrees can be obtained at community colleges, while bachelor’s degrees can be obtained at four-year colleges and universities.

2.    License, Certification and Employment

About half of the states require that nuclear medicine technologist obtain a license or certification. In normal circumstances, nuclear medicine technologists get certified, because it fulfills most of the requirements for a state license. Certification can be obtained by the ARRT (American Registry of Radiologic Technologists), and the NMTCB (the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board). Some nuclear medicine technologists get certified by both associations. In order to obtain a certification, a nuclear medicine technologist needs to meet the Federal standards of proper administration of radioactive drugs, and the standards for proper operation with radiation detection equipment. There are several programs that are recognized by these programs, and you also become eligible for the certification if you have obtained a bachelor’s or associate’s degrees in nuclear medicine. In both cases, applicants for the certification need to pass a comprehensive exam before they are certified to work. Additionally, certified nuclear medicine technologists need to annually register with both ARRT and NMTCB.

Additionally, the Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology accredits one-year programs. These one-year programs are generally necessary for health professional of various other fields to obtain a licensed certification. These include medical technologists, nurses and others who wish to change the direction of their careers. The Joint Review Committee of Education Programs in Nuclear medicine lists about 100 accredited programs around the USA and Puerto Rico.

3.    Further Specializing: PET and Nuclear Cardiology

After getting the required certification, nuclear medicine technologists sometimes choose to further their education and specialize in PET (positron emission tomography). This technology uses special machines and equipment to create detailed, three dimensional image of the area of the body, for example, the brain, kidneys or the heart. Nuclear medicine technologists can also specialize in nuclear cardiology, a technology that uses special radiopharmaceuticals to obtain specific images of the heart. When diagnosing a patient using nuclear cardiology, the patients are often required to exercise, while the technologist generates the images of the heart and monitors blood pressure. Both of these fields need the nuclear medicine technologist to have a very high level of knowledge about the procedures, and sufficient skill to work with the radiopharmaceuticals, and the advanced equipment (machines and computers). The Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board offers special certification exams in both of these fields.

4.    Physical and Psychological Skills of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

There are other skills and qualifications required to become a nuclear medicine technologist. They need to be willing to learn new things – as the technology is constantly advancing, and they need to be on top of new developments. They also need to be detail-oriented, and compile results, images and patient medical history to create a comprehensive record of the patient’s results which will be used by surgeons and other physicians during the patient’s treatment.

Nuclear medicine technologists need to be able to respond to the patient’s physical and psychological needs. They must be able to explain both to the patients and their families the process of generating the images, the possible side effects of the pharmaceuticals and other medications, as well as the safety measures taken to minimize the possibility of unnecessary exposure to radiation. As such, good communication is part of the required interpersonal skills set of a nuclear medicine technologist. They also need to be able to take orders from their supervising nuclear medicine technologist, especially during the training process.

They also need to be able to think on their feet, because more often than not, they will work alone with the patient. They will need to know how to handle the equipment during the procedure, and must always be aware of the danger of radiation exposure, and be aware of the radiation level measured by their badges. The technologists need to be meticulous in following the proper guidelines to ensure both their own safety and the safety of their patients.

5.    Necessary Training and Employment of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

After graduating and obtaining a certificate, new nuclear medicine technologists need training, first as radiographers and then directly as nuclear medicine technologists. This is necessary because the equipment used in nuclear medicine gets more sophisticated, requiring new skills. Nuclear medicine technologists normally train to operate computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which are used in combination with other nuclear medicine procedures. There are, for example, PET scanners, and gamma cameras which are combined with computerized tomography x-ray system. This is a special combination that requires the nuclear medicine technologists have the skills to operate these imaging systems and special knowledge in cross sectional anatomy.

There are also departments where the nuclear medicine technologists have roles and tasks that go beyond mere nuclear medicine, including, running cardiac stress sessions, administering therapy radionuclides, inject sentinel nodes, issuing technical reports. Some hospitals and employers might require advanced training before a nuclear medicine technologist gets a job post.

Salary: How much do Nuclear Medicine Technologists Make?

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In the United States, in May of 2015, the estimated medium annual salary for nuclear medicine technologists was $73,360 in the Unites States. The medium salary means that about half of the nuclear medicine technologists make less than that. About 10% of the workers that made less than half the annual medium salary had earned less than $52,950. On the other hand, half of the workers in the field had earned more than the medium average annual salary, with the top 10% earning more than $100,080.

This can change, depending on the industry the nuclear medicine technologists worked at. For example, the average annual salary for nuclear medicine technologists working at private physician’s offices is $75,100. The nuclear medicine technologists employed by public and private hospitals make an average annual salary of $73,050, and the average annual salary of the nuclear medicine technologists that work in medical and other diagnostic laboratories is $70,110.

Salary: Nuclear Medicine Technology Highest Paid Job in Radiology Field

By this account, the average annual salary of a nuclear medicine technologist is higher than a radiographer’s or x-ray technician’s average annual salary. It is one of the highest paying positions in the field of radiologic technology. During the years 2004 and 2010, the average salary of a nuclear medicine technologist has increased by 13.4%. According to estimates made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today, a nuclear medicine technologist makes about $25,000 more, annually, than the average health technologists and technicians. This makes the occupation highly attractive to people who want to pursue a career in radiologic sciences and medicine. Additionally, it is the highest ranked occupations that can be obtain only with an associate’s degree in nuclear medicine. According to Forbes magazine, in 2012 nuclear medicine technologists were ranked #4 in highest paid community college graduates. Other medicine fields require more years of study and specialization to generate the higher revenue.

How Experience Affects the Salary of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

The attractiveness of the occupation of nuclear medicine technologists is also aided by the fact that experience plays a large role in the annual salary of a nuclear medicine technologist. In other words, the more experience a nuclear medicine technologists have, the higher their annual salary will be. It increases correspondingly with the years of experience, which serves as motivation to rise through the ranks. However, this can take years to achieve. For example, for the first two years, the yearly salary of a new nuclear medicine technologist is usually around $59,441. The next two years, the annual salary will only see an increase of about $1,000. In the next five years, a nuclear medicine technologist will be expected to make $66,961. This means that a nuclear medicine technologist will hit the $70,000 yearly salary sometime after 12 to 15 years of working. After the 15th year, the rise of the annual salary reaches a plateau, as seasoned workers with an experience of more than 15 years only make about $700 more than their younger colleagues during the year.

Factors That Can Affect the Salary of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

There are several factors that can have an effect and contribution to a nuclear medicine technologist’s annual salary. Some of them are the geographic location – as different states, hospitals and private practices can pay more than the average amount stated above, or less than that. For example, the average nuclear medicine technologist in California earns $88,766, annually, while a person with the same occupation in West Virginia can earn only $52,226. There is also the seniority of the position of the nuclear medicine technologist – and private practices and hospitals might pay more for a more senior technologist and less for technologists that are new in the field. These factors should be taken into account by people who want to pursue a career in nuclear medicine, because the result differentiates and fluctuates – and the person might end up making less money than they planned annually.  These variables have the potential to make your earnings fluctuate dramatically, and should be taken into account when calculating potential salary.

How Much Nuclear Medicine Technologists Make In Other Countries

The annual salary of a nuclear medicine technologist in Canada is estimated between C$42,715 and C$80,218 per year. There are also bonuses which a nuclear medicine technician can earn and they can go up to C$1,010. Average hourly wage is C$18.57 and C$37.65 per hour.

In Australia, the annual average salary of a nuclear medicine technologist ranges between AU$38,010 and AU$94,617, and the median salary is about AU$72,007 per year. Bonuses can go up to AU$1,029. Just like in the USA, in Australia experience plays a role in a nuclear medicine technologist’s salary. Technologists with one to four years of work experience make about AU$38,665 and AU$89,423 annually.

In the United Kingdom, the average annual salary nuclear medicine technologists can go up to £25,250 while the maximum hourly wage reaches. However, younger technologists (24 years old and even older) tend to make less than that (about £18,935). On the other hand, older technologists, between 30 and 40 years of age, earn an income estimated at £24,745 to £29,287 annually.

Job Outlook: How Necessary Will Nuclear Medicine Technologist Be In The Future?

It has been projected that the employment of nuclear medicine technologists will grow about 20% in the years between 2014 and 2024, which is more than the average growth of all other occupations combined. This is a really good projection, based on the fact that the aging population will increase the need for nuclear medicine in general. This means that the demand for workers in the field will increase. Nuclear medicine technologists and other type of technicians will be needed to provide the patients the necessary treatment and scanning, especially patients with heart diseases and tumors. The growth is also considered to accelerate and increase due to the fact that more people are expected to have access to health insurance because of the federal and other reforms. Thus, more and more people will demand medical imaging services, especially those by nuclear medicine.

What Can Affect the Employment Growth Of Nuclear Medicine Technologists

The employment growth might be tempered by the fact that plenty of medical facilities have begun to use the less costly, noninvasive imaging technologies like ultrasound. The popularity of these technologies has increased because of their noninvasive nature – nuclear medicine uses radiopharmaceuticals, commonly known as radioactive drugs, which might have an effect on the body of the patient.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that about half of the future nuclear medicine technologists, or about 55%, will work in medical and diagnostic laboratories. On the other hand, about a fifth, 26% will work in regular private and public surgical hospitals. Other popular places for nuclear medicine technologists to work at are private practices, but according the BLS, this industry will not employ a significant number of technologists in the future.

This is why the occupation of nuclear medicine technologist offers plenty of possibilities. People who want to succeed will need to invest the time and money to obtain the required minimum associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree or a certificate (if they are already working in a different medical field).

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