What Is Nuclear Medicine Technology? Definition & History

Ask some people what nuclear medicine technology is and they might have no idea how the thought of something “nuclear” can be combined with medicine. But ask someone who wants to be a nuclear medicine technologist, and they will know that it’s a skilled and interesting profession that sounds somewhat like science fiction but is actually a very common and useful part of modern healthcare.

Nuclear medicine technologists prepare and administer small amounts of radioactive substances and observe how those react in the body for diagnosis and treatments. Nuclear medicine combines knowledge of imaging, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer technology, and medicine.

The History Of Nuclear Medicine Technology

You could say that the history of nuclear medicine technology began in 1941 when a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital named Saul Hertz gave a patient the first therapeutic dose of iodine-130. Or, you could trace it back even farther, as the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNNMI) does, to 1896, when Henri Becquerel discovered mysterious “rays” from uranium, and the following year, when Marie Curie named those mysterious rays “radioactivity.”

The knowledge that certain particles emit radioactivity is the basis of the field of nuclear medicine technology. Scientists learned to harness that radioactivity to provide images of the body at the molecular and cellular level. Molecular imaging involves using very small amounts of radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals to aid in producing a visual picture of the body’s structure.

Imaging techniques such as conventional ultrasound and X-rays mainly show anatomy; however, nuclear medicine can provide a more nuanced picture of normal or diseased tissues. The radiopharmaceuticals are detected by special types of cameras tracked by computers. Because of their minute size and pinpointed locations, the radiopharmaceuticals can provide very precise information about their location in the body.

In addition to imaging, nuclear medicine can also be used to treat certain types of cancer and other diseases. Each radionuclide has unique properties that make it useful for certain diagnostic and therapeutic tools. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one of the earliest applications of nuclear medicine was the use of radioactive iodine to treat thyroid cancer. As the discipline developed over the past 50 years, it did so with the support of the Atomic Energy Commission, which has supplied radionuclides to the research community.

Targeted therapies using radioactive pharmaceuticals exploit the unique properties of each particle, such as its type of radiation decay, radiation range, and half-life. One example of how radioactivity is used to pinpoint the location of diseased tissue is through the use of the radiopharmaceutical fluorine-18-fluorodeoxyglucose. This is a sugar molecule that has been “tagged” with radioactive fluorine-18. Cancer cells consume glucose at a faster rate than normal cells. This molecule can be tracked in the body, so that tumor sites can be pinpointed through the detection of increased glucose consumption. When a radioactive pharmaceutical is used to treat a tumor, it is delivered to the tumor site through a carrier, and then the radioactive decay is able to target the cancer cells of the tumor.

Today, nuclear medicine technology is used to treat bone pain, thyroid cancer disorders, blood disorders, and several types of cancer, among other issues.

What Does A Career As A Nuclear Medicine Tech Look Like?

A forward-thinking student who wants to pursue a career as a nuclear medicine tech will take as many math and science classes as possible in high school. After that, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a core science field such as chemistry or biology would be advised. Many schools offer post-baccalaureate certificates for specialization in nuclear medicine technology, while others offer master’s degrees in a nuclear medicine technology program.

While every employment situation is slightly different, it is safe to say that every employer will require certification or licensure following an approved course of study and passing a certifying exam by either the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists to work as a nuclear medicine technologist.

The Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board certifies individuals to practice nuclear medicine. For the highest employability, seek out a nuclear medicine technology program that is accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT), which is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to accredit postsecondary nuclear medicine technology programs.

Once licensed, the nuclear medicine technologist can embark on a satisfying career working in a remarkable healthcare career, working directly with patients, and having a tremendous effect on their prognosis through proper diagnosis and treatment.

Day-to-day Job Functions of a Nuclear Medicine Tech

Nuclear medicine technicians are the ones who prepare and deliver the small doses of these radioactive drugs that are used either to diagnose or treat disease. They may also be instrumental in medical research to determine new capabilities for these drugs. After delivering the radioactive doses to their patients, they use sophisticated imaging equipment to record images of the radioactive material in the body. Those images are sent to highly trained physicians to interpret.

According to the SNNMI, nuclear medicine techs work closely with the nuclear medicine physician. The physicians are typically part of a hospital, medical facility, or research facility, and typically have limited involvement with patient care. The technologist is the one who prepares the radioactive compounds, delivers them, and then traces them through the imaging procedures. In the case of treatment, the tech is the one who prepares and delivers the treatment doses.

The equipment used gathers a plethora of data—the tech will process the nuclear imaging data and ensure that the digital images are “readable” by the diagnosing physician. They may be called upon to provide other patient information to the physician. The tech will need to understand all procedures with an emphasis on the safety of themselves and their patients, and the appropriateness of every action they take with regard to the radioactive particles they would be handling on a daily basis.

Where Do Nuclear Medical Technologists Work?

The University of Alabama, which offers a master’s degree in nuclear medicine technology, says that nuclear medicine techs often work in medical clinics. They may also get jobs in academics to train other nuclear medical technologists, or as research assistants, health physicists, hospital radiation safety officers, state inspectors, physicians, or in sales of the sophisticated nuclear instrumentation used in imaging, or for the radiopharmaceutical companies who provide the materials.

Employment opportunities exist in any type of medical center that performs treatment or diagnosis of a variety of ailments: general medical centers, veterans and armed forces medical centers or hospitals; public health institutions; research laboratories, cancer centers, or kidney centers, bone centers, blood centers, or brain centers where nuclear imaging is used to find abnormalities in all of these body systems. Additionally, career opportunities are available in atomic power or nuclear instrumentation manufacturing companies.

The University of Missouri, which offers a nuclear medicine master’s degree, says that their program prepares students for possible careers as clinic managers or senior administrators, technologists for specialized imaging such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), or as training specialists for the medical equipment or pharmaceutical industry.

Career Paths For Nuclear Medical Technologist

Once a student has decided on a school or degree or certificate program, they can decide on a course of specialization. Entering into the field with a science-related bachelor’s degree is common. Master’s programs or certificate programs often offer the student the chance to study in a specialization area that is interesting to them. For instance, as mentioned above, additional training and experience could enable a nuclear medicine technologist to earn specializations in a specific application of nuclear medicine such as positron emission tomography.

Most nuclear medicine technologists become certified. Although certification is not required for a license, it fulfills most of the requirements for state licensure, which varies by state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for nuclear medicine technologists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, a rate that is faster than average. The 2019 median pay for a nuclear medicine technologist was $77,950 per year, or $37.48 per hour. They note that the highest mean levels of pay were for jobs in outpatient care centers ($107,070), hospitals ($78,040), physicians’ offices ($77,850), and medical and diagnostic laboratories ($73,240).

Vanessa Salvia
Vanessa Salvia Writer

Vanessa Salvia is an Oregon-based freelance writer and editor with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. As fun as rigorous studies in math and science were, Vanessa took an independent path and developed a prolific career covering lifestyle topics for magazines and newspapers, important industries such as concrete construction and building waterproofing, and even hard science. You can get in touch at www.sagemediaandmarketing.com.