How To Become A Nuclear Medicine Technologist
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Nuclear medicine technology—the process of elucidating various bodily processes using small amounts of radioactive drugs traced via diagnostic scans—is a relatively new (and lucrative) medical field, requiring at least a two-year postsecondary degree. In fact, O*NET (2021)—a data organization sponsored by the US Department of Labor—reports that 63 percent of these professionals have associate degrees and 22 percent have a bachelor’s.
For a career that pays an average annual salary of $82,080 (Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2020)—nearly double the average pay for all occupations at $56,310 (BLS 2020)—this can be an enticing return on investment in a skill-based education.
So what do nuclear medicine technologists (NMTs) do? O*NET (2021) details some of the typical job responsibilities in this field which include educating patients and families on medical procedures; administering radioactive drugs (i.e., radiopharmaceuticals) to be traced through diagnostic imaging machinery under the supervision of a physician; working with various medical equipment (e.g., SPECT, PET, ECG, gamma camera, intravenous infusion pump, sphygmomanometer, etc.); applying expertise in radiation safety to limit exposure; monitoring patients’ health status for any adverse reactions; verifying the proper functioning of imaging equipment; keeping confidential patient records and digital images of scans; keeping abreast of changes in technology and processes through continued education; disposing properly of hazardous materials; and ensuring compliance with governmental regulations.
They may also choose to specialize in positron emission tomography (PET), computed tomography (CT), or nuclear cardiology. Due to the nature of the medical profession, NMTs may work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Seventy-three percent of NMTs work in hospitals (BLS 2021).
Finally, the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) reports that at least 30 US states require licensure for NMTs and offers a table of regional requirements, including exams, continuing education, and local certifying board contact information. As well, most states accept NMTCB certification in place of state licensure examination.
Read on to discover how much money NMTs generally make and the steps to joining this high-paying profession, including the educational, experiential, and certification requirements.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist (NMT) Salary
As mentioned above, nuclear medicine technology can be a lucrative career. By illustration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) reports the following salary ranges for NMTs:
- 10th percentile: $57,830
- 25th percentile: $68,370
- 50th percentile (median): $79,590
- 75th percentile: $95,230
- 90th percentile: $109,070
For comparison, alary.com (2021)—an aggregator of HR-reported salaries—found slightly different salary ranges among its reporting organizations:
- 10th percentile: $68,851
- 25th percentile: $76,721
- 50th percentile (median): $85,365
- 75th percentile: $93,394
- 90th percentile: $100,704
The BLS (May 2020) adds that the top-paying states for this occupation are the following:
- California: $121,070 annual average salary
- Rhode Island: $103,170
- Washington: $101,450
- Hawaii: $100,980
- District of Columbia: $96,960
The above states were not necessarily the top-employing states for this profession, a factor that correlated more with state population size (BLS 2020):
- Florida: 1,510 NMTs employed
- Texas: 1,320
- California: 1,270
- Ohio: 910
- New York: 870
It’s important to note that although some regions pay NMTs higher average salaries, the cost of living is generally higher in those regions. In fact, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) found that in 2021, the five most expensive states were Hawaii, the District of Columbia, New York, California, and Massachusetts. Conversely, the most affordable states were Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arkansas.
Although it’s one of the most expensive states, there’s great news for Californians: eight of the 10 top-paying metropolitan areas for NMTs were located in the Golden State, mainly concentrated in the Bay Area (BLS 2020):
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $139,410 average annual salary
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $136,650
- Sacramento-Roseville/Arden-Arcade, CA: $135,660
- San Diego-Carlsbad, CA: $124,330
- Fresno, CA: $121,070
Finally, demand for NMT positions is likely to be strong in the coming years. As proof of point, the BLS (2021) estimates that job openings in this field will grow 8 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is as fast as the average growth projected for all occupations during that time.
Steps To Become A Nuclear Medicine Technologist (NMT)
There are varied paths to becoming a nuclear medicine technologist (NMT). Some choose to attend an accredited associate degree program, while others may seek a more advanced four-year bachelor’s program before becoming professionally certified.
Here is one possible path to joining this career.
Step 1: Graduate from High School (Four Years)
In anticipation of the college admissions process, aspiring NMTs are encouraged to excel in the prerequisite secondary school courses. These courses generally include precalculus, English composition, physics, chemistry, biology, and anatomy if available).
Also, since NMTs typically require immunizations to work in a medical setting, people interested in the career should ensure their tetanus-diphtheria, MMR, hepatitis B, and varicella (i.e., chickenpox), and COVID-19 vaccinations are up-to-date. Furthermore, students at this stage may choose to garner experience in a hospital setting as a volunteer or paid intern and are urged to check with local organizations for opportunities.
Step 2: Complete an Accredited College Program in Nuclear Medicine Technology (Two to Four Years)
As stated above, most NMTs have an associate degree or higher (O*NET 2020). In addition to the prerequisite coursework listed above, admissions committees to NMT programs typically call for a competitive GPA; a personal statement; proof of immunizations; letter(s) of recommendation; relevant volunteer or work experience; an interview (web-based or in-person); a background check; and an application fee. Please note that there may also be physical requirements to join this profession.
For example, California’s Kaiser Permanente School of Allied Health Sciences (KPSAHS) requires program applicants to be able to stand (or walk) at least eight hours daily; lift and move a 290-pound person with the assistance of 1-2 colleagues; reach above shoulders for up to six hours; reach forward 18 inches holding an object up to 15 lbs.; “bend, crouch, or stoop” up to 20 times hourly; push a wheelchair or gurney at least 300 feet; and move up to 45-pound loads 25 times hourly. Prospective NMTs with other allied health fields certifications may also have an advantage in the application process.
Students are urged to seek out NMT programs accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT), the primary accrediting agency for NMT programs which weighs factors such as school administration, resources, curricula, and operational policies to gauge program quality. For more information on the accreditation process, please visit JRCNMT’s Accreditation Standards Manual.
One exemplary JRCNMT-accredited program is Bellevue College (BC) in Washington state, which provides an NMT associate degree program. This associate of arts (AA) program typically takes 18 months to complete and combines general education requirements with specialized coursework in basic nuclear medicine science, radiopharmacy, positron emission tomography (PET), and instrumentation.
In addition to didactic instruction, Bellevue has partnered with several hospitals to give students the hands-on, supervised instruction they need to join this highly skilled field. Upon completing the program, students are eligible to take both the national and Washington state NMT certification exams. There are also distance learning options available to aspiring NMTs in more rural regions of the state.
Accredited bachelor’s programs are also available for those interested in potentially enhancing their employment and salary prospects. For example, the State University in New York (SUNY) at Buffalo provides a four-year NMT bachelor’s degree program through its Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences Department.
Boasting “a very high first-time pass rate on the certification exams,” SUNY at Buffalo offers training in immunology for NMT, radiation safety, patient care and management, X-ray and computed tomography (CT) physics, and in-vivo studies. Additionally, students spend four days weekly during their senior year in clinical rotations and gain empirical exposure to the tasks and challenges of a clinical setting.
Finally, the California-based Kaiser Permanente School of Allied Health Sciences (KPSAHS) provides bachelor’s and certificate NMT programs for applicants who have already received their associate’s degrees. In its competitive 18-month bachelor of science (BS) program, students are prepared to take state and national certification exams with comprehensive training in the classroom, laboratory, and hospital environments.
With an incredible 100 percent of its graduates passing the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) or the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) exams, KPSAHS focuses on clinical competence, professionalism, and critical thinking. Please visit the JRCNMT website or the nuclear medicine technology programs page for more information on accredited education in this field.
Step 3: Get Professional Certification (Timeline Varies)
As of 2020, 30 states require NMTs to be licensed before employment. Requirements for licensure, certification, and registration vary by state. The Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board provides a convenient table of exams, continuing education requirements, and agency contact information by region. Although the state may not require certification, employers generally prefer it.
There are two leading certification organizations for NMTs: the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
The NMTCB offers its certification exam to applicants who have completed a regionally accredited NMT program. However, beginning January 1, 2017, the qualifying program standards will become more stringent. NMTCB will only accept applicants who have completed a program accredited by the JRCNMT or a qualified international accrediting body.
The NMTCB exam covers four areas: radiation safety (15 percent), instrumentation (20 percent), clinical procedures (45 percent), radiopharmacy (20 percent). Certified individuals must register annually following the completion of at least one hour of qualifying continued education (CE) per month.
Finally, the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers an NMT certification exam to candidates who meet standards of education and ethics. For education, candidates must have a degree from a program accredited by an agency recognized by the US Department of Education (e.g., JRCNMT). They also must have documented all skills in ARRT’s competency area checklist, a form completed by a program director.
For ethics, aspiring NMTs must report any felonies, misdemeanors, or other criminal convictions and disclose whether they’d ever been subjected to discipline by a medical regulatory authority. ARRT’s exam covers five areas: radiation protection (10 percent), radionuclides and radiopharmaceuticals (11 percent), instrumentation and quality control (20 percent), diagnostic and therapeutic procedures (50 percent), and patient care and education (9 percent).
Candidates have three chances to pass the exam. To maintain this credential, certified NMTs must formally comply with ARRT’s rules, regulations, and ethics annually; submit continuing education (CE) documentation biannually; and fulfill the continuing qualifications requirements (CQR) every ten years.
Step 4: Earn State Licensure (Timeline Varies)
As previously mentioned, 30 states require NMTs to be licensed to practice nuclear medicine technology. Most of those states consider current NMTCB certification as a valid qualification for the state licensure requirement. To be prepared for job searches, all aspiring NMTs are encouraged to research the state licensure requirements for where they plan to work.
The Society of Nuclear Medicine & Molecular Imaging (SNMMI) lists nuclear medicine technologist requirements by state. For example, California requires NMTs to be licensed while Alaska does not. Keep in mind that even if a state does not require NMT licensure, having the certification is still recommended as it can lead to increased job opportunities and serve as proof of commitment to the profession.