Individuals cannot get hands-on experience without the necessary qualifications. However, it is possible to become familiar with the job responsibilities by talking with practicing nuclear medicine technologists or teachers involved in the field. In addition, volunteer experience at local hospitals or nursing homes provides a good introduction to what it is like to work in a health care setting.
Nuclear medicine technologists work directly with patients, preparing and administering radioactive drugs. All work is supervised by a physician. Because of the nature of radioactive material, the drug preparation requires adherence to strict safety precautions. As a result, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees all safety procedures.
After administering the drug to the patient, the technologist operates a gamma scintillation camera that takes pictures of the radioactive drug as it passes through or accumulates in parts of the patient's body. These images are then displayed on a computer screen, where the technologist and physician can examine them. The images can be used to diagnose diseases or disorders in such organs as the heart, brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones. Nuclear medicine is also used for therapeutic purposes, such as to destroy abnormal thyroid tissue or ease the pain of a terminally ill patient.
Nuclear medicine technologists may specialize in either nuclear cardiology or positron emission tomography (PET). In nuclear cardiology, myocardial perfusion imaging is needed. To accomplish this, technologists still use radiopharmaceuticals and cameras to image the body. Myocardial perfusion imaging differs from other nuclear medicine, however, in that patients are required to perform exercise so the technologist can image the heart and blood flow. PET technologists operate a special medical imaging device that produces a 3-D image of the body.
Nuclear medicine technologists also have administrative duties. They must document the procedures performed, check all diagnostic equipment and record its use and maintenance, and keep track of the radioactive drugs administered. Laboratory testing of a patient's body specimens, such as blood or urine, may also be performed by these technologists. In addition, they provide the attending physician with up-to-date medical records for his or her review.