Nuclear Medicine Technician vs. X-Ray Technician- What is the difference?
When you are looking for jobs in the field of medical imaging, you are bound to start getting confused at some point; it can be hard to differentiate between the different kinds of technicians. Take a nuclear medicine technologist and an x-ray technician, for example. X-rays and nuclear materials both emit radiation, so these must be the exact same job, right? Wrong. Although there are many similarities between a nuclear medicine technologist and an x-ray technician, there are some important distinctions to make between the two jobs.
To understand what a nuclear medicine technologist does, you first need to understand what radiopharmaceuticals are. Radiopharmaceuticals are radioactive materials that contain radionuclides, which are unstable atoms. Thanks to their precarious nature, radionuclides emit radiation spontaneously. When radiopharmaceuticals are introduced into a patient’s body, they are attracted to specific parts of the body. The radiopharmaceuticals may be ingested, inhaled by or injected into the patient. Nuclear medicine technologists are responsible for administering these radiopharmaceuticals to patients.
But how does making a patient swallow a radioactive substance aid in the creation of images? Well, as the radiopharmaceuticals make their way through the body, the radiation they emit can be tracked with a gamma or PET camera. The camera is hooked up to a computer that receives the information and uses it to form images of the organ in question. If an organ is functioning correctly, then you would expect to see a certain concentration of radioactivity. However, if you see more or less radioactivity than expected, then something is wrong with the organ. What’s really interesting about nuclear medicine is that it is the only form of diagnostic imaging that analyzes the function of an organ instead of only the structure; you get to see how an organ works instead of just what it looks like.
If you choose to specialize in nuclear medicine, you have two options: nuclear cardiology or positron emission topography (PET). As the name indicates, nuclear cardiology has to do with creating images of the heart. The major difference between regular nuclear medicine and nuclear cardiology is that the patient is required to perform exercise while undergoing a nuclear cardiology procedure so that the camera can capture images of the heart hard at work. If you specialize in PET, you’ll get to use a special camera that produces 3-D images instead of the usual 2-D ones.
X-ray technicians, sometimes known as radiographers, do not administer radiopharmaceuticals; if they’re administering anything to a patient, it’s probably a contrast medium such as a barium compound designed to make soft tissue show up more clearly on x-rays. X-rays are a form of radiation, and when an x-ray technician uses an x-ray machine on a patient, the radiation passes through the patient’s body and then comes into contact with a special film. If the radiation has a hard time penetrating a part of the body, like a bone, then it shows up as white on the resulting image. If the radiation is able to easily penetrate a part of the body, like a lung, then it shows up as black on the resulting image. Other parts of the body, depending on what they are made of and how dense they are, may show up as various shades of gray.
Although nuclear medicine technologists and x-ray technicians use radiation in very different ways to get medical images, their actual day-to-day work is quite similar. Both jobs require you to administer substances to patients, position the patients and the camera correctly in order to get the best images, explain the procedure to patients and make sure that both you and the patients are exposed to as little radiation as possible. Nuclear medicine technologists and x-ray technicians also are required to keep meticulous records detailing the patient’s treatments. People in both professions can anticipate a physically demanding job that keeps them on their feet for most of the day and requires them to be able to lift and move patients. Do not assume that nuclear medicine exposes you to more radiation than x-rays do; in reality, during a nuclear medicine imaging session, the amount of radiation you are exposed to is similar to the amount you would be exposed to during an x-ray procedure.
Students interested in these professions will need to go to school for a certificate, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. In addition to degree requirements, many states and employers require nuclear medicine technologists and x-ray technicians to be licensed and certified. The number of jobs available for nuclear medicine technologists and x-ray technicians is expected to grow in the future. However, there will be more competition for jobs as nuclear medicine technologists; if you’re looking for a field that’s easier to break into, become an x-ray technician. Both professions make good money; in 2008, the median annual salary was $66,660 for a nuclear medicine technologist and $52,210 for an x-ray technician.