An increasingly popular field that many people are choosing to go into is diagnostic imaging. Diagnostic imaging includes a variety of imaging procedures designed to help diagnose and treat diseases and injuries. Well-known imaging procedures include x-rays and MRIs. A lesser known but up-and-coming imaging process is nuclear medicine. The health care professionals whose job it is to produce diagnostic images via the use of nuclear medicine are known as nuclear medicine technologists.
To understand what nuclear medicine technicians do, you’ll need to know about radiopharmaceuticals. A radiopharmaceutical is a substance made out of radionuclides. Radionuclides are unstable atoms, and due to their instability, they erratically emit radiation. These radiopharmaceuticals are administered to patients, and once they enter the body, they are attracted to certain areas. For example, radiopharmaceuticals may be designed to be attracted to the heart, and thus, the radiopharmaceuticals will concentrate in the heart. The radiation emitted by the radiopharmaceuticals can be tracked by a gamma scintillation camera, which is sometimes known as a scanner. The camera is hooked up to a computer that produces images. With these images, doctors can see what the organs or tissues in question look like and how well they are functioning. If an organ is working correctly, then a doctor will expect to find a certain concentration of radioactivity. However, if the resulting images show higher or lower concentrations, then something has gone wrong. One major difference between nuclear medicine and other diagnostic imaging procedures is that most imaging procedures only show changes in the structure of the organ; nuclear medicine also shows metabolic changes.
As a nuclear medicine tech, you will be responsible for administering the radiopharmaceuticals to patients. Radiopharmaceuticals can be administered to patients via injection, inhalation, ingestion or other methods. Patients may be anxious about the upcoming procedure, so you will need to explain it to them and calm their fears. After the radiopharmaceuticals have been administered, you will need to position both the patient and the camera correctly to get the best possible images. You will then operate the camera and prepare the images for the doctor to look at. Your duties will also include trying to minimize the amount of radiation both you and your patients are exposed to and keeping detailed records about your patients’ treatments.
Nuclear med techs can specialize in two areas: positron emission tomography (PET) and nuclear cardiology. Those professionals who are trained in PET use a different camera that produces 3-D images instead of the usual 2-D ones. If you specialize in nuclear cardiology, you’ll learn how to do something called myocardial perfusion imaging. Myocardial perfusion imaging is similar to a regular nuclear medicine procedure; the main difference is that during a standard nuclear medicine procedure, the patient remains inert, but during a myocardial perfusion imaging procedure, the patient does exercise so that the camera can capture how well the heart works. Nuclear medicine can be used to detect a variety of different things; for example, you may be searching for blood clots in lungs, scanning bones for orthopedic injuries, diagnosing hyperthyroidism or looking for blockages in the liver.
If you’re interested in becoming a nuclear medicine technologist, be aware of the fact that it is a physically demanding job. You can expect to be on your feet for most of the day, and you’ll have to be strong enough to lift and turn over physically disabled patients. Since you will be in charge of operating the camera, you’ll need to have some degree of mechanical ability as well as fine motor skills. As with most diagnostic imaging procedures, there exists a degree of danger when it comes to radiation exposure. However, by using protective devices such as shielded syringes and gloves and following radiation safety guidelines, there shouldn’t be any problems. In addition to using protective devices, you will wear badges that measure the radiation level of the area you are in.
Most nuclear medicine technicians work in hospitals, but some also work in physician’s offices or diagnostic laboratories. You can expect to have a 40-hour workweek. In addition, you may be required to have on-call hours. It’s possible to find a position that offers part-time hours or shift work. Most technologists work out of one location, but if you work for a mobile imaging service, you’ll be expected to travel around. In 2008, there were approximately 21,800 jobs in this field, and by 2018, the number of available jobs is expected to grow by 16 percent. In 2008, the median salary for a nuclear medicine technologist was $66,660, and the average technologist can expect to make anywhere between $57,270 and $78,240.