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Nuclear Medicine Education, Schools, and Career Overview

The Society of Nuclear Medicine defines nuclear medicine as a way of documenting imaging or organ structure and function, as well as a way of gathering information to make a definitive diagnosis without the use of surgery or more expensive testing.

Nuclear medicine careers involve using radiopharmaceuticals to evoke a particular response from the body and emit a gamma ray, which can then be viewed as a photographic image. Some structural examples of what this type of technology is used on include the heart, brain, rectum, breasts, and prostate. What sets nuclear medicine apart from more standard diagnostic testing is that it may detect diseases or conditions based on changes in metabolic function when combined with radiopharmaceuticals. Regular diagnostic testing only has the ability to diagnosis based on the changes in organ structure, which is not always apparent at certain stages of the disease process.

Most nuclear medicine careers involve working in a hospital or clinical environment; however, some professionals with large amounts of education and experience sometimes work at the scientific level of discovering new technology and new ways of making nuclear medicine more involved and effective.

Nuclear Medicine Specializations

Those who choose to work in nuclear medicine often start as a nuclear medicine technologist. The daily activities of your job may include the following:

  • Operate cameras for photographic imaging
  • Explaining procedures and risks of procedures to patients
  • Injecting radiopharmaceuticals into a patient
  • Limit the amount of exposure during imaging to both staff and patients
  • Create and document medical records
  • Document which type of radiopharmaceutical was used and at what amount
  • Safely discard excessive amounts of radiopharmaceuticals
  • Collect medical history background information on each patient
  • Intervene with CPR when a life-or-death situation arises

Nuclear medicine technologists also have the option of specializing in a particular area, including nuclear cardiology and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning. Both of these specialties would be positions that could be obtained with additional education and training, such as a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.

Here’s more to know about specialized areas of focus you may work in within the field of nuclear medicine:

  • Laboratory  nuclear medicine: Some nuclear medicine technologists decide after working initially with patient care and imaging that would enjoy the challenge of actually making laboratory diagnoses by mixing received specimens with radiopharmaceuticals.
  • Nuclear cardiology: This stills employs the usage of radiopharmaceuticals, however it works by having a patient exercise at the time of administration and imaging so that an accurate account of the blood flow in the heart can be evaluated.
  • PET scanning: PET scans use special equipment to produce a three-dimensional image of the body. This image can then be used to view the internal body and makes a definitive diagnosis in many cases.

Education Requirements for Nuclear Medicine Careers

In most cases, there are some requirements that must be met before you can even enter a nuclear medicine degree program. If these requirements are in effect, they are typically put in place by the school and not an outside governing body. A minimum of a high school education is certainly required, but a school will sometimes require some previous college credit before allowing for entry into their nuclear medicine program, following insight from the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology.

If a school is mandating that you have more than just a high school diploma, they will probably be asking that you have either some clinical experience or two years of undergraduate study. Some of the course prerequisites that will likely be expected by nuclear medicine schools may include:

1.     Biology
2.     Physics
3.     Math
4.     High school level chemistry course

Nuclear medicine schools typically require that students complete a 12-month internship with an accredited or affiliated organization. Clinical internships can give you hands-on experience and show you how to apply what you have learned from your textbooks. Working under a licensed nuclear medicine technologist can also give you the benefit of seeing firsthand how nuclear medicine works in a clinical environment.

Courses you might expect to take in your nuclear medicine educational prep include the following:

Course: Human Anatomy

One of the most important classes offered by nuclear medicine technologist schools is the study of human anatomy. Learning about human anatomy includes understanding and being able to identify the major systems of the body, including the muscular, skeletal, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproduction, and nervous system. It is important for a nuclear medicine technologist to have a firm grasp of the anatomical structures and their relationship to diagnostics.

Course: Nuclear Medicine and Instrumentation

A nuclear medicine and instrumentation course offered by nuclear medicine schools is designed to give students an overview of nuclear medicine, the instruments and technology used, and the function of these applications as they apply to the medical field. Nuclear medicine is used in many aspects of imaging of the organs and body structures, so it is imperative that you understand how nuclear medicine can be used to confirm or deny diseases and ailments affecting these organs and structures. 

Learning how to use your tools and resource appropriately can give you a much better understanding of how to be successful as a nuclear medicine technologist. Not only do you need to understand the science behind this type of medicine, but you also need to understand how technology is used to make your job the reality that it is.

Course: Radiopharmaceuticals

This course may effectively teach you how to understand and apply the process of radiopharmaceuticals as they relate to the human body. Radiopharmaceuticals are contrast materials that become attracted to organs, bones, and tissues once inserted into the body. Most of time radiopharmaceuticals are injected intravenously, but they can also be given orally and inhaled. Once a substance of this material enters the body, it produces an effect on the anatomical structures and emanates a gamma ray. That gamma ray can then be seen as a photographic image on a computer screen. 

The use of radiopharmaceuticals is the main function of a nuclear medicine technologist and, therefore, makes this class extremely important. Because of the use of radiopharmaceuticals in nuclear medicine, CT scans and MRIs can help to diagnose conditions that otherwise wouldn’t be noticeable without surgical procedures.

Nuclear Medicine Degree Programs

The course curriculum taught in programs offered through nuclear medicine schools can vary by degree option; however, there are some courses which are absolutely instrumental to the profession as a whole, including the study of human anatomy; radiation safety, employment, and effects; as well as techniques and computer technology as it pertains to the scope of nuclear medicine. Nuclear medicine programs are extremely in-depth and require a great deal of diligence, interpretation, and dedication to the practice of nuclear medicine. 

Many nuclear medicine schools are now beginning to offer courses online as a more convenient approach to learning the complexities of this career. The only portion of the course that cannot be taken online would be the clinical component because of the hands-on nature of the course.

While there are specific educational requirements to work as a nuclear medicine technologist, there is a good amount of laxity on what the standard entry-level education should consist of. Currently, a student is eligible for state licensure, in most states, and certification if he or she has completed the minimum of a certificate program.

Here’s a list of potential degree programs that could shape your path to a career in nuclear medicine:

Certificate Program

A certificate program in nuclear medicine is often designed to be a one-year short course that awards a certificate upon the completion of the program. Likewise, it can be considered somewhat of an accelerated program because of how quickly the course is taught. Certificate programs, are certainly sufficient for employment as a nuclear medicine technologist. However, most certificate programs are only taught in hospitals where a student already has a working knowledge of medicine and healthcare in general.

Associate Degree

Working towards and associate-level nuclear medicine degree may take about two years of your time and is highly recommended as the minimum amount of specialized education by various different organizations within the medical field. 

Over this two-year time span, you may be introduced to an array of medical information as it pertains to radiopharmaceuticals, technology, chemistry, and physical science. You may also have clinical requirements for graduation of an associate degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree will usually take about 3 to 4 years to complete because of the extensive amount of information taught. This courses offered by nuclear medicine schools offering bachelor’s degrees may involve the basics of anatomy and patient care and present to you the in-depth process of learning about the chemistry and physics behind the practice of nuclear medicine. 

Postgraduate Degree

A master’s in science degree may take you even further into the study of science as it relates to the field of medicine and would put you at the scientist level of nuclear medicine. If you were considering working behind-the-scenes on developing new ways to use science as a foundation for medicine, this degree program could be an ideal choice.

Nuclear Medicine Certifications

Two boards currently exist which are responsible for issuing national certification to students of nuclear medicine, and they include the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board, or NMTCB; and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, or ARRT. 

The NMTCB lays out the following eligibility requirements before any student or occupied professional can take their certification test:

  1. Graduated from an accredited nuclear medicine program recognized by the NMTCB. The Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology, or JRC-NMT accredits most schools.
  2. The nuclear medicine degree obtained can be either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree; however, it must have a focus on physical science or biological science.
  3. The degree must include courses in physics and chemistry.
  4. Must have been working under a certified nuclear medicine technologist for at least 4 years prior to application for examination.
  5. Must have at least 15 hours working in the field of nuclear medicine or radiation.

In addition, the NMTCB requires at least 24 credit hours of continuing education for every two years for recertification. 

The ARRT has similar requirements, and the choice as to which organization you choose to be certified through is up to you. You may even want to consider being certified by both organizations, as this can give you more recognition and placement in the job market.

Specialty Certification

Certain nuclear medicine programs place a greater focus on specialized aspects of the progression. If you are thinking of specializing as a nuclear cardiologist or as a PET scanning technologist, you should be informed that a separate specialized test would be required of you to be certified in either of these two areas. 

To take either of these examinations, you will already need to have active nuclear medicine certification. In addition, you must also have worked at least two years in a nuclear medicine environment during the last five years prior to application for examination. 

To renew your specialized certification, you will likely be held to the same continuing education requirement as all nuclear medicine technologists, which is 24 hours for every two years.

State Licensure Requirements

Many states require students to hold a state license before they can act or perform as a nuclear medicine technologist. The states that have had a licensing process for nuclear medicine include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming.

In most states, the licensing process is relatively the same in that graduates are required to meet all initial educational requirements by completing state-approved nuclear medicine programs. In addition, most states that issue licenses will mandate that you complete a certain amount of continuing education credit hours facilitated by nuclear medicine schools before your state license can be renewed. 

States that have a state licensing process may require you to take a national nuclear medicine certification test before they will authorize your license; however, some states also require a state jurisprudence test as well. A jurisprudence test is state specific and may ask a student to demonstrate his or her understanding of the current state laws and regulations surrounding the nuclear medicine profession. The only states from the list above that do not require this type of test include Minnesota, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Utah.

Continuing Education in Nuclear Medicine

This profession holds a lot of room for individual and professional growth. There is no reason to feel that once you obtain your degree and begin working as a nuclear medicine technologist that you are limited to that position indefinitely. In fact, a good majority of technologists go on to become chief technologists, or supervisors; specialists; or institutional instructors of nuclear medicine.

Your ticket to advancement in this field is furthering your education. If you begin by obtaining an associate-level nuclear medicine degree and go on to work on a bachelor’s or master’s degree, your combination of education and experience in the field may create a direct route for career advancement.

Skills and Abilities for Careers in Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine programs help students hone their analytical skills. Having good analytical skills is a major part of this profession. The job of a nuclear medicine technologist requires using scientific and chemical information to make an informed diagnosis of a condition based on these factors. Building scientific knowledge in this arena is an absolute must. However, the scope of this job also requires you to be able to take the information that you have and apply it accordingly. In order to do this, a student must be taught how to think in a critical and analytical manner.

Patient care will possibly be the largest aspect of you job. Every time that a procedure or image is ordered by an attending physician, you will likely need to interact with the patient. It may be your job to explain the procedure to the patient so that he or she is informed about what you are doing and how this process can help to diagnosis his or her condition.

In addition, you may also be responsible for collecting any past medical history background information on the patient. A patient’s past medical history is absolutely crucial to helping the science of nuclear medicine to work effectively. Certain surgical factors and disease conditions could potentially produce a false-positive affect on an imaging scan, and it is important to know these factors so that they can be accounted for when you are reviewing an image.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Nuclear medicine technologist salaries and career growth outlook can vary greatly depending upon factors such as level of education, experience, and the relative size of the employer as it relates to the industry in general.

Here's a snapshot of what salary you might expect working in nuclear medicine:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Nuclear Medicine Technologists$77,660$54,410$103,660
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Additionally, here's what you might expect for job growth in nuclear medicine:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Nuclear Medicine Technologists18,9309.8%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Sources

1.     Nuclear Medicine Technologist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nuclear-medicine-technologists.htm#tab-6
2.     Nuclear Medicine Technologist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292033.htm
3.     State Licensure, Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board, no date, https://www.nmtcb.org/faq/index.php?cat=9#a44
4.     The Michener Institute,
www.michener.ca
5.     The Society of Nuclear Medicine, 
www.interactive.snm.org 
6.     Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology,
www.jrcnmt.org 
7.     May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000

Nuclear Medicine Schools