What Does a Nuclear Medicine Specialist Do?

Debra Barnhart

A nuclear medicine specialist could be a physician, imaging technologist, pharmacist or scientist who is trained in the use of radioactive materials to diagnose and treat disease. Chemical changes in the body as well as changes in organ structure can be determined by a nuclear medicine specialist. Physicians and technologists specializing in nuclear medicine work side by side to diagnose and treat disease.

A nuclear pharmacist fills all prescriptions that include drugs with radioactive components.
A nuclear pharmacist fills all prescriptions that include drugs with radioactive components.

Physicians specializing in nuclear medicine scrutinize the tests for the presence of disease and prescribe treatment. Not only is nuclear medicine used in diagnosis, but it is also used for disease treatment. For example, radioactive iodine therapy is commonly used to treat thyroid disease. A physician is required to study nuclear medicine for three additional years to become a nuclear medicine specialist. Both the American Board of Radiology (ABR) and the American Board of Nuclear Medicine (ABNM) certify physicians in nuclear medicine.

Nuclear medicine technologists administer special pharmaceuticals that emit low levels of radiation. They then use a scanner or probe to monitor radiation levels in the body. Abnormalities in the body will show up as higher or lower levels of radiation. Nuclear medicine tests can scan the lungs, bones, brain, heart, kidneys and thyroid, in addition to the intestines and the colon.

Nuclear pharmacists procure and prescribe radiopharmaceuticals. They are educated at colleges specializing in nuclear pharmacy, and like any other nuclear medicine specialist, they are trained in the proper handling of hazardous chemicals. Nuclear pharmacists are certified by the Board of Pharmaceutical Specialties (BPS).

New developments in techniques and treatments in nuclear medicine are often the result of research conducted by nuclear scientists. These scientists come from a variety of backgrounds, such as chemistry, physics and even computer science. Their contributions are key to advancing nuclear medicine. The scientists work in academic medical centers, healthcare imaging manufacturing companies, and research companies.

Radionuclides are atoms with an unstable nuclei, and they produce low levels of radiation. Purified radionuclides are used to make radiopharmaceuticals that can be injected, inhaled or swallowed. These radiopharmaceuticals can target specific organs depending on the type of compound. Scintigraphy is one of the imaging techniques used by an nuclear medicine specialist. Another kind of test is positron emission tomography (PET).

The unique aspect about nuclear medicine is its ability to look at the body’s metabolic processes. Other forms of medical imaging take pictures of body organs and bone, but nuclear specialists can monitor things like blood flow and organ function. Nuclear imaging is non-invasive and can often be used to detect disease earlier than other forms of imaging.

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