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 (2016)—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 which pays an average annual salary of $73,230 (BLS 2014)—nearly double the average pay for all occupations at $47,230 (BLS 2014)—this can be an enticing return on investment in a skill-based education.
So what do nuclear medicine technologists (NMTs) do? O*NET (2016) 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. Sixty-nine percent of NMTs work in hospitals (BLS 2015). Finally, the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board reports that 26 US states require licensure for NMTs and offers a table of regional requirements including exams, continuing education, and local certifying board contact information.
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 2014) reports the following salary ranges for NMTs:
- 10th percentile: $52,080
- 25th percentile: $61,730
- 50th percentile (median): $72,100
- 75th percentile: $85,410
- 90th percentile: $96,570
For comparison, Payscale (2016)—an aggregator of self-reported salaries—found slightly different salary ranges among its 242 reporting NMTs:
- 10th percentile: $46,000
- 25th percentile: $53,000
- 50th percentile (median): $64,715
- 75th percentile: $76,000
- 90th percentile: $85,000
The BLS (2014) adds that the top-paying states for this occupation are the following:
- California: $98,320 annual average salary
- Hawaii: $85,590
- New Jersey: $84,970
- Connecticut: $84,540
- Washington: $84,120
These states were not necessarily the top-employing states for this profession, a factor that correlated more with state population size (BLS 2014):
- Florida: 1,670 NMTs employed
- California: 1,560
- Texas: 1,500
- New York: 1,330
- Pennsylvania: 1,020
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(MERC) found that in 2015, the five most expensive states were Hawaii, District of Columbia, New York, California, and Alaska. The most affordable states were Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.
Although it’s one of the most expensive states, there’s great news for Californians: all five of the top-paying metropolitan areas for NMTs were located in the Golden State, mainly concentrated in the Bay Area (BLS 2014):
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $119,510 annual average salary
- San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, CA: $112,670
- Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, CA: $112,030
- Sacramento-Arden/Arcade-Roseville, CA: $105,960
- Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, CA: $103,940
Finally, competition for NMT positions is likely to be fierce in coming years. As proof of point, the : BLS (2015) estimates that job openings in this field will grow only 2 percent between 2014 and 2024, somewhat slower than the growth projected for all occupations during that time (7 percent).
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 prior to becoming professionally certified.
Here is one possible path to joining this career:
- Graduate from high school. Aspiring NMTs are encouraged to excel in the prerequisite secondary school courses in anticipation of the college admissions process. These courses generally include precalculus, English composition, physics, chemistry, biology, and anatomy 9if available). Also, since NMTs generally require immunizations in order to work in a medical setting, people interested in the career should ensure than their tetanus diphtheria, MMR, hepatitis B, varicella (i.e., chicken pox), and PPT results 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.
- Complete an accredited college program in nuclear medicine technology (2-4 years). As stated above, a majority of NMTs have an associate degree or higher (O*NET 2016). 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 lb. person with 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 lbs. loads 25 times hourly. Prospective NMTs with other allied health fields certifications may also have an advantage in the applications 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 at 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 completion of 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. For those interested in potentially enhancing their employment and salary prospects, accredited bachelor’s programs are also available. For example, the State University in New York (SUNY) at Buffalo provides a four-year NMT bachelor’s degree program through its Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences. Boasting “a very high fire-time pass rate on the certification exams,” SUNY at Buffalo offers training in immunology for NMT, radiation safety, patient care & management, X-ray & computed tomography (CT) physics, and invivo studies. Additionally, students spend four days weekly during their senior year in clinical rotations, an experience giving them empirical exposure to the tasks and challenges of a clinical setting. Finally, for applicants who have already received their associate’s degrees, the California-based Kaiser Permanente School of Allied Health Sciences (KPSAHS) provides both bachelor’s and certificate NMT programs. In its competitive 18-month bachelor of science (BS) program, students are prepared to take state and national certification exams with comprehensive training in 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 its training on clinical competence, professionalism, and critical thinking. For more information on accredited education in this field, please visit the JRCNMT website or nuclear medicine technology programs page.
- Get professional certification or licensure (timeline varies). As of 2016, twenty-six states require NMTs to be licensed prior to employment. Requirements for licensure, certification, and registration vary by state and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board provides a convenient table of exams, continuing education requirements, and agency contact information by region. Although certification may not be required by the state, employers generally prefer it. There are two main 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, as 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 are required to 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 which must be 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 & radiopharmaceuticals (11 percent), instrumentation & quality control (20 percent), diagnostic & therapeutic procedures (50 percent), and patient care & 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.