Technologies including X-rays, MRIs and nuclear medicine enable doctors to examine how the body's structures and systems work, making it possible to diagnose illnesses with greater accuracy than was possible in the past. These images are created by trained technologists that use high-tech equipment to obtain the diagnostic images that help doctors treat their patients.
Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnetic field to force the body's own electrical charges into a new alignment. Once the field is relaxed, the body's cells return to their original electrical polarity. The cells then release a tiny electrical signal that MRI equipment analyzes to create images of the body's tissues. MRIs are especially useful for creating images of soft tissues that are shielded by denser tissues, such as the brain and its blood vessels inside the skull or the muscles and tendons within a bony joint. It can even create real-time video of a functioning human brain or other tissues.
Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology takes a different approach to creating diagnostic images. Technologists give the patient a mildly radioactive drug in the form of a pill, an injection or an inhaler. The drug is designed to be absorbed by a specific bodily tissue or a bodily organ, such as the thyroid gland. The technologist uses special radiation-sensitive cameras to create images of the drug's absorption by the organ or tissues. If the cells absorb the radioactive material more quickly or slowly than they should, it could indicate a medical condition. Other technologies create images of the body's physical structures, whereas nuclear medicine shows its processes.
Similarities and Differences
MRI technologists and nuclear medicine technologists have similar skills, and many radiologic laboratories use hybrid scanning machines that combine the two technologies. By superimposing the two images, technologists enable doctors to see both structure and cellular health at a single glance. MRI technology is less invasive than nuclear medicine, because it doesn't employ radioactive substances or ionizing radiation -- like X-rays -- to create its images. Nuclear medicine technologists must be aware of radiation at all times and follow appropriate safety procedures to protect themselves and their patients.
MRI technologists and nuclear medicine technologists usually enter the field with an associate degree, though there are certificate programs and bachelor's degrees available. Professional certification in both specialties is available through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists. The Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board also provides certification in nuclear medicine. Technologists who are certified in one of the technologies can take certification exams in the other after completing a formal training program or, in some cases, through clinical experience. Once qualified, MRI technologists and nuclear medicine technologists should have strong job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 19 percent job growth for nuclear medicine technologists and 28 percent employment growth for MRI technologists and other radiologic technologists between 2010 and 2020. Both projections exceed the 14 percent average for all occupations in the U.S.
2016 Salary Information for Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Nuclear medicine technologists earned a median annual salary of $74,350 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, nuclear medicine technologists earned a 25th percentile salary of $62,900, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $88,610, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 20,100 people were employed in the U.S. as nuclear medicine technologists.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Magnetic Resonance Technologist
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Nuclear Medicine Technologist
- Radiology Info: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - Head
- Radiology Info: MR Angiography (MRA)
- American Registry of Radiologic Technologists: Magnetic Resonance Imaging Certification
- American Registry of Radiologic Technologists: Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification
- Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board: Welcome
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Radiologic Technologists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Nuclear Medicine Technologists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Nuclear Medicine Technologists
- Career Trend: Nuclear Medicine Technologists
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.